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When the coronavirus hit in the spring of 2020, student surveys indicated that four-year colleges would be hit the hardest this fall, with many students turning to cheaper two-year community colleges until the pandemic ended. Those surveys didn’t get it exactly right. The actual drop in the number of undergraduate college students is large but community colleges are experiencing the biggest student exodus. And there are increasing indications that low-income students in particular are vanishing from the nation’s campuses.

According to a preliminary October 2020 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that tallied fall enrollment figures from just over half of the nation’s colleges and universities, the number of undergraduate students has fallen 4 percent since the fall of 2019. That’s an estimated 600,000 fewer college students nationwide if these partial enrollment trends continue. To put that number in perspective, the loss in college students would be greater than the entire population of Baltimore. 

Fewer new students, as opposed to returning students, are responsible for more than two-thirds of empty seats on campus. (Those learning remotely from afar are classified as enrolled and are not among these empty seats.) College going — whether in-person or remote — among first-time beginning students is down a sharp 16 percent this fall compared to a year earlier. At two-year community colleges, which educate about 40 percent of America’s college students, it was worse. The number of new students is down 23 percent. In comparison, the drop in new students was only about half as much at public and nonprofit four-year institutions, which tend to serve higher income students. 

“These are two very different phenomena,” said Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Students at more selective institutions are taking gap years. They’re opting to wait a year because they don’t like the idea of studying online or missing out on a freshman campus experience. Without missing a beat, they’ll be back enrolled next year.”

“But when you consider community college students, they’re much more likely to be from low-income families that have been hard hit by the recession and the pandemic,” said Shapiro. “I think there’s a real risk that they may not be able to come back next year. It could continue for years and affect a whole generation.”

Students are vanishing from community colleges during the pandemic fall of 2020. Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s “Stay Informed” report, Oct. 15, 2020.

Even for students who are poor enough to qualify for free tuition, it’s been a turbulent year to submit documents and meet paperwork deadlines to receive financial aid. Tuition worries aside, many don’t have high-speed internet, their own up-to-date laptops or quiet places to study for online learning. 

Surveys conducted since the spring reflect that high schoolers are thinking twice about going to college. In an August poll by Third Way and New America, two liberal Washington think tanks, almost a third of high school seniors said they are now “less likely to enroll in a college or university upon graduation.”

Students aren’t leaving online colleges, which are seeing a 7 percent surge in enrollments this fall as students gravitate to institutions with a track record in remote learning. That might also explain the 3 percent increase in students at for-profit colleges, which tend to teach online. For-profit colleges, often criticized for marketing to low-income students and saddling them with large student debts, had been experiencing a nine-year decline in enrollment until now. But students are also flocking to nonprofit institutions with established online programs, such as Western Governors University, based in Utah, and Southern New Hampshire University.  

“For profit and online institutions are generally more nimble in being able to attract students short term, enrolling students on a monthly basis or offering shorter courses,” said Shapiro.  “You don’t have to wait until the next term to start or commit to 16 weeks.”

Grad school attendance is up too, by 3 percent between fall of 2019 and fall of 2020. It’s not that more students are enrolling in traditional professional or doctorate programs. Instead, the growth is primarily in short certificates taught online. The new pandemic graduate students are young, typically under 25 years of age. 

“Imagine just graduating from college in May into probably the worst time imaginable to enter the labor market,” said Shapiro. “Why wouldn’t you stay in school another year by picking up a short-term certificate or even a master’s degree?”

Earlier data from summer course taking suggested that Black students might be dropping out of college at higher rates than other races and ethnicities. But the fall data show that white students are now matching these same high dropout rates. The number of Black and white undergraduate students is each down 8 percent between fall of 2019 and fall of 2020. Native American college students have declined the most, down 11 percent. Hispanic and Asian enrollments have fallen 6 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The number of international students has plummeted almost 14 percent. 

One mystery is why men are exiting college at three times the rate of women; male enrollment is down 6 percent versus a 2 percent decline for females. After the 2008 recession, many men were laid off from manufacturing jobs and enrolled in college to retrain. That has not happened, at least not yet, in the current recession, which is now more than seven months long. 

I would have expected the current recession to trigger more women, especially working mothers, to leave college. The pandemic has added to their responsibilities with school children learning remotely from home. Yet the data indicate that many of these women have figured out a way to juggle it all and stay enrolled, at least part time. College going by older adult female students, above age 25, dropped less than 2 percent between fall of 2019 and fall 2020. Among older male students, enrollment drops exceeded 8 percent. 

A complete count of every college student in the country across 3,600 colleges and universities is expected to be released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in December 2020. The next preliminary report, slated for release in November, will have data on 80 percent of these institutions, up from 54 percent covered in this current October report. 

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center launched monthly reports, called “Stay Informed,” to help inform college leaders and policymakers during the pandemic. Many of them are worried about their budgets as tuition dollars vanish along with their students. 

But the larger problem is the fate of the students who have dropped out or failed to start. Many of the short-term obstacles such as lack of Wi-Fi or a place to study will end when the pandemic fades. Will these students resume their college careers? If they don’t, they are much less likely to rise from poverty and join the middle class — and that loss will ultimately affect the nation’s economic growth. It’s a problem we should all worry about.  

This story about college enrollment was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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