College Enrollments Remain Weak a Year Into Pandemic

Student Selecting Book From Shelf In Library.

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The slump in college enrollments one year into the pandemic has seen no signs of abating, highlighting COVID-19’s toll on education.

Last spring, schools had to close and readjust almost overnight as the country shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. As the pandemic continued and uncertainty over logistics, economic growth, and health concerns grew, first-time fall college enrollment fell an “unprecedented” 13.1% in 2020, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) said. 

One year later, enrollment in all racial and ethnic categories continues to dwindle, with spring 2021 undergraduate attendance down 4.5% from the same period last year, according to the NSCRC. Two-year community colleges were hit hardest with a 9.5% drop, while private for-profit colleges were the only schools that showed an enrollment gain, up 3.9%, this spring. 

Private for-profit institutions likely benefited because many of these schools had already  established remote learning programs, are not as selective about accepting new students, and can accommodate an influx of marginal students, or those most on the margin of attending or foregoing higher education, according to St. Louis Federal Reserve research.

Still, the overall decline is unusual during an economic downturn. The St. Louis Federal Reserve points out that enrollments typically rise during a recession as people see the longer-term benefits of education outweighing their current alternative, especially among younger workers and marginal students who would attend community college. 

"There's no quick turnaround in sight for undergraduate enrollment declines driven by the pandemic," said NSCRC Executive Director Doug Shapiro in a press release.

Various reasons could explain the waning interest in four-year universities. With the prospects of a curtailed on-campus social life, ongoing health concerns, and skepticism of remote learning, many high school graduates may have decided to delay their entry, the St. Louis Fed said. Meanwhile, others may have deferred because of cost concerns as the pandemic upended people’s finances.

The NSCRC is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), a nonprofit that collects data about and provides research for higher education institutions. The enrollment data the NSCRC provided were based on enrollment numbers as of February 11, and reflect 6.7 million students, as reported by 43% of the colleges submitting information to the NSC.