Clearinghouse: Undergraduate fall enrollment drops 2.5%

Community colleges continue to see the deepest declines. On the positive side, graduate numbers are up
By: | September 24, 2020
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Overcoming the odds during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been upbeat reports from several higher education institutions on admission and acceptance of new students this fall.

In fact, a handful of states appear to be doing better than others in posting gains. Graduate student numbers also have increased by 3.9% across the U.S.

However, a key metric for colleges and universities – undergraduate student enrollment – has declined 2.5% as of Sept. 10, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Postsecondary enrollment as a whole has dropped 1.8% year over year.

Across the board, the undergrad numbers are not positive, especially at community colleges, where there has been an 8% fall in enrollment. Private non-profit four-year institutions also have been hit hard, with a 3.8% drop.

“Adding to what we saw in the Summer term enrollments, the fall data continue to show how much higher the stakes are for community college students during disruptions like the pandemic and the subsequent recession,” says Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “The picture will become clearer as more data come in, but at this point the large equity gap for students who rely on community colleges for access to higher education is a matter of critical concern.”

All racial and ethnic groups showed declines in enrollment in the latest Clearinghouse report, which looked at 3.6 million students across 629 colleges and universities. Enrollment for international students, those with non-resident alien status, fell 11.2%, while American Indian and Native Alaskan students were down 8%. Both White and Black student enrollment dropped 6%, while Hispanic and Asian students declined 3%.

There were some relative positives from the study: Public four-year institutions held their ground for the most part, dipping just 0.4%, while graduate numbers soared, especially among Hispanic students, which saw a 14.2% increase. Arizona, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia posted both positive undergrad and grad enrollment numbers. But there were a couple that fell in both categories, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Online-only institutions showed a similar trend to the overall findings – undergraduates saw a decrease of 3.5%, while graduate students showed a gain of 3%.

The Clearinghouse is providing periodic updates on its website, with research that tracks the impact of COVID-19 on postsecondary enrollments. The site offers early insights with preliminary data before the full enrollment reporting is completed for the term.


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com