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College Enrollment Continues to Fall Due to COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to severely impact college enrollment across the US. According to data released on Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment around the country has fallen by 2.9 percent for spring 2021 compared to the same period last year.

These data point to a continuation of the drop in enrollment registered last fall, as many students elected not to return or apply to college due to the great uncertainty regarding institutions and public health during the height of the pandemic.

These nationwide figures, based on data collected from 43 percent of Clearinghouse participant universities, represent a total of 6.7 million students and point to a significant drop in enrollment across most segments, regions, and demographics in the higher education sector. 

Enrollment Declines by Degree Level, School Type

Overall, undergraduate enrollment fell 4.5 percent. One major exception, graduate enrollment, rose by 4.3 percent compared to the same period last year. Public four-year college enrollment fell 3.3 percent while enrollment at private, non-profit four-year colleges saw a 2 percent hit. However, the largest drop among four-year institutions was felt by for-profit, four-year colleges, whose enrollment fell 3.9 percent compared to spring 2020.

In another telling exception to this trend, there was a 7.1 percent gain in enrollment at institutions that operate primarily online. Many students may have elected to transfer their enrollments to these institutions with a greater than 90 percent online enrollment in response to the risk and uncertainty surrounding traditional academic programs.

By far, however, the steepest enrollment drop was experienced by community colleges. This seems to be due to the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on underrepresented lower income and minority students. Enrollment at two-year community colleges fell 9.5 percent compared to spring 2020, equalling its decline for the fall. 

Ethnic, Demographic, and Regional Differences

Racial and ethnic data — only available for public colleges — showed a decline for all student groups. By far the greatest decrease in enrollment occurred among Native Americans, at 12.5 percent. Enrollment among white students fell 7.7 percent, among Black students 7.4 percent, Latin student enrollment fell 5.3 percent, and Asian student enrollment declined 3.2 percent. International student enrollment across all racial and ethnic demographics experienced a precipitous decline of 15.6percent. 

The steepest drop in college enrollment according to age occurred among traditional 18 to 24-year-old students at 5.3 percent, while students between 25 and 29 were down 3.5 percent, adult students (29 and older) decreased by 2.1 percent, and students younger than 18 – most dual-enrolled in high school and college – fell by 2.7 percent. A notable gender difference was also noted, with enrollment of men down 7.2 percent while 4.5 percent fewer women were enrolled.

The decline in college enrollment for the spring 2021 semester has occurred consistently throughout US regions. The Northeast saw a decline of 5.3 percent and Midwest enrollment fell by 5 percent while the South and the West both saw declines of 4.5 percent. The states with the greatest declines in enrollment were South Dakota at 12.7 percent, Alaska at 11 percent, and New Mexico and Mississippi both at 10.1 percent

The increase in graduate enrollment was experienced across 40 states, with the highest being in Mississippi at 22.4 percent, Georgia at 14.8 percent, and Maine at 14.2 percent.

Biden Stimulus to Higher Ed Economic Relief

With so many colleges experiencing significant drops in enrollment, many are beginning to worry about the economic impacts, even questioning their continued viability. With this in mind, President Biden has recently signed a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, with up to $40 billion earmarked for higher education relief. A total of 50 percent must be allocated to students who demonstrate extraordinary need due to the pandemic.

The remaining half of stimulus funds will remain for institutions to allocate, likely addressing budget shortfalls. Many colleges and universities have begun cutting faculty members and programs as a result of tightening budget restrictions. This relief money — the largest package thus far allocated for higher education — will offer hope of stemming the tide of financial losses due in large part to pandemic-induced enrollment declines.

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