How COVID enrollment compares to past recessions

College plans for fall 2020 changed in 75% of households
By: | January 14, 2021
More than one-third of students canceled their plans entirely, a decision that was more likely to be made in low-income households. (GettyImages/SDI Productions)GettyImages/SDI Productions

College plans for fall 2020 changed in 75% of households, with potential students dropping out, taking fewer classes or switching programs or institutions, a new report from a leading think tank has found.

The most common change—experienced by 39% of households–was taking classes in a different format, such as online learning, according to “When Back to School Meets Stay at Home” by Anthony P. Carnevale and Megan L. Fasules of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

More than one-third canceled their plans entirely, a decision that was more likely to be made in low-income households or by students in certificate or associate’s degree programs, the report found.

In fact, only 26% of households with students seeking certificates continued taking classes in a different format, compared to more than half the those participating in bachelor’s degree programs.


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And almost half of the households with incomes under $25,000 reported that a student canceled college plans.

“Students who put their postsecondary plans on hold or cancel them outright risk not completing their credential, which can affect their long-term earnings and chances of holding a good job,” Carnevale wrote. :We must work to ensure that students have the support they need to stay on track toward graduation despite the challenging circumstances that they face.”

These statistics reflect the bigger impact the COVID recession is having on college enrollment, when compared to the economic downturns of the past several decades.

Until 2020, college going had grown in every recession since the 1960s, with students choosing college over sluggish labor markets, the report says.

In 2008, the first year of the Great Recession, enrollment increased by 20%. It then grew by 4% and 5% in each of the following two years.

In 2020, COVID financial and health concerns drove undergraduate enrollment down by 4%—nearly 530,000 students—across all types of institutions.

First-year enrollment fell further, dropping by 13%—about 327,500 students—with many high school graduates choosing to take gap-years.


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“These reactions could have major consequences for low-income students, who are more likely to delay or cancel their plans and to fall behind in their college attainment compared with high-income students, who are finding ways to continue with their postsecondary education,” Carnevale and Fasules wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic could lead to larger gaps in college attainment between low- and high-income students.”

The impacts varied by location. The most disruptions to college plans occurred in Vermont, where plans changed in 83% of households, followed by Massachusetts (82%), Rhode Island (82%), Oregon (81%), and New Mexico (81%).

Plans changed the least in South Dakota (59% of households), Montana (62%), North Dakota (62%), Alabama (64%), and Georgia (65%).