No ‘quick turnaround in sight’: Report finds enrollment losses continue

Dive Brief:

  • College enrollment declines are continuing from the fall into the spring, with deeper losses among undergraduates at public and private nonprofit institutions, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published Thursday.

  • Undergraduate enrollment at public four-year schools fell 3.3% this spring from a year ago, versus a 1.1% decrease last spring and a 0.7% dip this fall. 

  • Graduate enrollment growth continued from the fall, driven by increases at public four-year colleges. 

Dive Insight:

The preliminary data reflects enrollment figures from fewer than half of the institutions that work with the clearinghouse. The numbers will likely fluctuate as more colleges report to the center, Doug Shapiro, its executive director, told reporters on a call Wednesday. But the data shows similar levels of enrollment declines from the fall, meaning there’s no “quick turnaround in sight,” Shapiro said.

The early numbers show the continuation of a troubling trend from the fall: big enrollment declines at two-year schools.

Community college enrollment suffered the most out of all the sectors this fall, with about a 10% annual decrease, earlier Clearinghouse data indicates. This was despite predictions that students would flock to two-year colleges during the economic downturn, which occurred in response to Great Recession.

Enrollment at public two-year colleges this spring dropped by 9.5% year over year, based on the new data in so far.

Associate degree programs, some of which are more directly career-oriented, are harder to adapt online, which most institutions have had to do in response to the pandemic, Shapiro said. Community colleges also tend to serve more low-income students, who have been drastically affected by the health crisis. 

“Those students and families are facing the largest hurdles staying enrolled,” Shapiro said. 

The overall drop was somewhat mitigated by the growth of graduate student enrollment, which is up by more than 4% year over year, preliminary figures show. Graduate student enrollment at public four-year colleges jumped by more than 6% for the period. 

The data also breaks out patterns by race and ethnicity. The most significant drops occurred among Native American undergraduates, with a 12.5% decline from last spring. White and Black students had decreases of 7.7% and 7.4%, respectively.

Undergraduate international student enrollment plummeted by 15.6% compared to last year. International student enrollment was lagging before the pandemic, which cut their numbers further, recent data shows.

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