Of all the enrollment trends to emerge over the past year—from the double-digit drops at community colleges to the increases in graduate student rates—this might be the most unique.
Among modestly selective higher education institutions, the College Board recently identified declines in enrollment at four-year colleges of ‘A’ students and increases in the number of ‘B’ students, both likely outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic that may have resulted from gap years, deferments and other factors.
The numbers from its report “College Enrollment and Retention in the Era of Covid” were significant: 4% to 6% drops for elite students and rises of 5% to 7% for those a grade level below at colleges and universities with 25% to 49.9% acceptance rates. The study looked at 10 million high school graduates from the past three cohorts at 22,000 K-12 schools.
“The quantitative evidence aligned with what many heard from institutions last year: four-year colleges reported more deferrals, more students taking gap years, and fewer international students,” said Jessica Howell, Vice President of Research at College Board. “As a result, some colleges may have admitted more students from their wait lists and from further into the high school GPA distribution than in prior years.” Howell said the College Board will continue to research “whether these missing A/A+ students enroll in four-year colleges in fall 2021.”
Students with A+ averages among all four-year institutions saw a 6% enrollment decline—the largest of any subgroup—while those with B- or lower actually saw a 3.1% increase. However, the data was reversed at two-year institutions, where the B- or lower students got crushed in enrollment figures (-15%) compared with A+ students (-2%). The most selective institutions saw no declines in enrollment—the pool of A- students, for example, rose 4.8%.
Cost was another factor for drops overall, even at non-profit four-year colleges. Those that charged between $15,000 and $30,000 in tuition and fees saw a 2.2% decline, while those that charged $30,000 to $45,000 lost more than 6% in enrollment.
Meanwhile, four-year institutions largely did well in terms of retention and persistence for the 2019 cohort, despite the interruptions presented by the pandemic, in many cases remaining level or seeing declines of less than 2%. However, two-year institutions sustained big drop-offs of nearly 5% in both categories.
“In conversations with institutions, some have suggested that retention patterns may be related to emergency financial aid as well as more flexible college grading policies in spring 2020,” Howell said. “Since college drop-out is frequently related to financial and academic challenges, continued retention rate gains may require that institutions have the resources to continue providing the financial and academic supports students need.”