New federal data confirm enrollment declines

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Preliminary data released by the federal government today reaffirmed that colleges and universities lost hundreds of thousands of students last year as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on fall 2020 enrollments, particularly at community colleges. The new data, which also break down enrollment by state, shed light on some of the other ramifications of the pandemic, including changes in student retention rates, number of employees and institutional revenue.

Colleges and universities’ enrollment nationwide fell by 651,774 student — a decline of more than 3 percent — from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Higher education institutions also had 151,627 fewer employees in fall 2020 compared to the previous fall, employing 3,867,250 full-time and part-time employees, down from 4,018,877 in fall 2019.

Some institutions experienced enrollment increases, however. Enrollment at public four-year institutions increased by 61,624 students, a less than 1 percent boost, and enrollment at both two-year and four-year for-profit institutions rose. Two-year for-profit colleges gained 22,069 more students, an 11 percent increase compared to the previous year.

The overall student body for all higher ed institutions in 2020 was 48.9 percent white, 12 percent Black, 18.7 percent Latinx, 0.6 percent Native American and 6.7 percent Asian. But for-profit institutions enrolled high percentages of Black and Latinx students — 24.7 percent and 18 percent respectively.

Audrey Dow, senior vice president for the Campaign for College Opportunity, said, “Any rise in the number of students attending for-profit proprietary colleges is concerning,” because students tend to take out loans to attend those institutions, where they’re often less likely to graduate.

“We know that many of the students who end up at those institutions do not go on to finish their degrees and often end up with a tremendous amount of debt,” she said. “It isn’t surprising that these proprietary institutions know how to target individuals who are in a vulnerable situation and could produce a number of new vulnerable individuals who they were able to target. This has been an ongoing trend pre-COVID.”

Community college enrollment was particularly hard-hit. Public two-year institutions enrolled 703,168 fewer students in fall 2020 than in fall 2019, a 15 percent drop.

NCES commissioner Peggy G. Carr said the size of the enrollment drop at community colleges is “concerning.”

“These are often two-year public institutions that serve as gateways to four-year institutions and as centers providing workforce training vital to adults of all ages,” she said in a press release.

Mamie Voight, interim president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the decline in community college enrollment signals an equity problem because students of color are “the very students who are most likely to start their higher education pathway at a community college.”

“The months since March 2020 have laid bare more than ever before societal inequities along racial and socioeconomic lines,” she said in an email. “Numbers like these show that the gaps are opening even wider, which means these communities are missing out on the social and economic mobility higher education can provide.”

These enrollment declines can have long-term ripple effects, noted Jinann Bitar, director of higher education research and data analytics at the Education Trust.

“What happens when even fewer students enter the pipeline to the middle class?” she said. “Because a bachelor’s degree or a credential is still the most reliable way to the middle class with a secure job and benefits.”

She also said there could be consequences for the U.S. economy. She pointed out that a majority of the jobs created in the last decade typically require a bachelor’s degree.

“An economist can certainly take these numbers and tell you estimated loss in revenue for each state with this many fewer people completing a credential. There are direct economic consequences for not keeping the pipeline strong. It also puts strain on all our other social safety nets.”

The data show retention rates also fell at higher education institutions over all, with part-time students experiencing steeper drops. The overall retention rate for full-time students dropped to 75.7 percent in 2020, down from 76.1 percent in 2019. The retention rate for part-time students fell by three percentage points, to 43.5 percent in 2020 from 46.5 percent the prior year.

At public two-year institutions, the retention rate for full-time students fell to 60.7 percent compared to 62.7 percent the prior year. The retention rate for part-time community college students dropped to 40.7 percent from 44.7 percent in 2019.

Dow said she wasn’t surprised to see retention rates dip in the “thick of the pandemic” as students feared for their health, faced financial strains on themselves and their families, and struggled with online learning.

“There were a number of factors at work that really did hurt retention: the uncertainty of the pandemic, the real fear and risks of travel, and financial obligations,” she said.

The data also illustrate the path of the shift to online learning last year. In fall 2020, 44 percent of students were enrolled exclusively in distance education compared to 17 percent in 2019. About 73 percent of students were enrolled in some distance education courses in 2020, compared to about 37 percent in 2019.

“The preliminary data show that enrollment in distance education had begun to accelerate even before the coronavirus pandemic,” Ross Santy, an associate commissioner at NCES who oversees the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System collection, said in a release. “The increase in enrollment for distance education was among the largest changes that we observed in this data collection.”

Dow noted that while the preliminary data are useful, they also leave “a lot to be desired” because, aside from enrollment numbers, the data aren’t disaggregated by race, ethnicity or gender.

While she knows more data will be released and those numbers will “absolutely” be available, she believes the preliminary data still have “a responsibility to call out those disparities,” she said.

Bitar also emphasized the importance of disaggregating all data by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status and by state.

“It’s important for folks when we see new annual data collections like this to really actually take a moment to investigate the data disaggregated,” she said. “We’re just really not going to have the ability to focus our efforts in an efficient manner unless we look at where the gaps and inequities currently exist. I think that we can see the results of federal policymaking that focuses on the aggregate now.”