It’s official: 2020 H.S. grads enrolling in college fell 6.8%

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center amends its enrollment figures and they still aren't positive.
By: | March 25, 2021
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Minus 6.8%: Not a number that looks positive in a column on college enrollment, but next to this percentage it might allay some fears: it was -21.7% in December.

On Thursday, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center updated its data on the 2020 high school graduating class and their immediate enrollment at postsecondary institutions for the fall 2020-21 academic year. Initially reported to be a steep decline, it ended up at just under 7%.

The revision was due to schools releasing 50% more data over the past three months and because of a processing error in the High School Benchmarks COVID-19 Special Analysis and the Transfer Report that the NSCRC fixed recently.

It was a better-than-expected takeaway from a devastating year for institutions but not great – four times worse than declines felt before the pandemic. And for the most heavily impacted students, the statistics are still dire.

“The new data show large enrollment disparities by income and poverty levels of high schools during COVID-19,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “These findings further illustrate how the pandemic has reduced access to postsecondary education, particularly for students seeking more affordable options in the public sector.”

Inside the numbers

Though COVID-19 had a deep impact on high school student instruction, seniors in the Class of 2020 still graduated at the same rates as their predecessors in 2019, according to the Clearinghouse.

For many reasons, however, a group of them did not enroll in colleges in the fall. Those drop-offs tended to fall along economic and racial lines, with students from lower-income high schools twice as likely to not enroll in college than those from higher income high schools:

  • As noted above, the overall decline was -6.8%. But breaking it down further, it was -11.4% for students from high-poverty schools (compared with 2.9% from low-poverty schools).
  • Students at low-income schools saw a -10.7% drop (compared with higher-income schools at -4.6%).
  • Schools with a high numbers of minority students fell -9.4% (compared with -4.8% at low-minority schools).
  • Urban and rural schools each saw -7.5% drops in students immediately enrolling in college, while suburban schools saw a 6.1% decline.

The drops among enrolling students from low-income schools and high-minority schools reversed trends that had seen bigger declines from higher-income and low-minority school from 2019.

“Students from disadvantaged schools are showing much higher rates of decline in college enrollment than their more advantaged counterparts,” Shapiro said.

How did the numbers stack up for colleges and universities and that 2020 graduating class?

Public four-year institutions saw a 3% decline, not too far off from that same period in 2019, which saw a 2.6% drop. Private non-profit four-years fell by 5.2% (it had declined 3.8% in 2019).

Community colleges, which have taken an enrollment beating over the past year, saw a 13.2% decline. In 2019, that number was +1.3%.

The most notable drop occurred at low-income high schools, which plummeted 18%. In 2019, enrollment of those students actually rose 2.4% .