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As the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, many warned that it would increase educational gaps between the haves and the have-nots. 

Now the proof is starting to come in. 

College attendance among Black students dropped a whopping 8 percent during the summer of 2020, compared with the summer of 2019, according to the first “Stay Informed” report published in September 2020 by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Low-income students of most races and ethnicities  — Black, white and Latino — were far less likely to attend a summer term than they had in the past, as measured by enrollment declines at community colleges, rural institutions and for-profit schools. 

By contrast, higher-income students were more inclined to hit the books during the summer of Covid — just the opposite of their low-income peers. Summer course-taking increased among students who attend four-year colleges and universities, particularly among Asian and Latino students at these institutions. 

“This pandemic has really affected the most vulnerable students, the most disadvantaged students,”  said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and author of the report.  “We’re seeing a dramatic split between what’s happening at four-year institutions and what’s happening at community colleges, rural, online and for-profit institutions.” 

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has traditionally counted nearly every college student in the country across 3,600 institutions twice a year, after the fall and spring terms. The organization launched the new monthly report, “Stay Informed,” to help college leaders and policymakers understand what is going on during the pandemic. This first report, covering the summer of 2020, is the first time the organization has analyzed summer enrollment. The data comes from 2,700 colleges and universities that operate summer programs and could provide historical data from previous summers. The next report, slated for release at the end of September, will be a preliminary report on early fall college enrollment for institutions that start their terms in August. 

Related: How the last recession affected higher education. Will history repeat?

The virus itself hit Americans unevenly, as did unemployment when the economy shut down. Racial protests added to those stresses, affecting some groups more than others. The combination of the three — the health pandemic, the economic recession and racial unrest — influenced many individual decisions about whether to take summer college courses. 

Black enrollment declined at every type of undergraduate institution during the summer of 2020 compared to a year earlier, though the drops were largest at institutions that cater to low-income students. There were nearly 11 percent fewer Black students at two-year public community colleges, 7 percent fewer black students at for-profit colleges, 5 percent fewer Black students at private four-year colleges and 3 percent fewer Black students at public four-year universities. 

To be sure, students can earn college degrees without ever taking a summer term. And it’s unclear if the trends in this summer data, showing divergent paths for low- and high- income students, will persist into the fall term and ultimately affect who becomes college educated in the future. But, according to Shapiro, this summer report is “very suggestive that we’re going to see continued gaps in [college] access for disadvantaged students.” 

The worry is that these short-term drops in enrollment could eventually reverse a decade of improvement in college attendance among Black high school graduates, which jumped from 31 percent in 2000 to 38 percent in 2010 and has remained flat since, according to federal data. Ultimately, these enrollment figures have long-term implications for lifting Black families out of poverty.  Fewer than 31 percent of Black adults had a college degree in 2016, according to the most recent report by EdTrust, compared to 47 percent of white adults.

In contrast, Asians increased their college studies at every type of institution, with the largest enrollment  increase — 12 percent — at public four-year universities. Latino and white students showed mixed trends for rich versus poor students. For example, Latino students increased their summer school attendance at four-year institutions but decreased attendance at community colleges. White summer school enrollment at four-year institutions was mostly unchanged from the previous summer but it dropped a huge 8 percent at community colleges. That’s a sign that many low-income white students might have dropped out of college this summer. 

Students of all races and ethnicities, except for Asians, were much less likely to go to a community college during the pandemic summer of 2020. Community colleges tend to serve lower-income students. Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s “Stay Informed” report, Sept. 1, 2020.

Why were higher-income college students more likely to take summer classes than lower-income ones? One theory is that they had more time on their hands without summer jobs at restaurants, camps or the beach. Students at four-year institutions are more likely to be traditional age, between 18 and 24. Many rely on their parents’ income to pay tuition and were living with their parents this summer with access to computers and good internet connections. 

“If these are students who were suddenly stuck at home with their parents all summer without a summer job, I can imagine those parents saying, ‘Goodness,  you’ve got to do something. Go ahead, take the extra class,’” said Shapiro. 

Community college students are more likely to be older adults. Many lost jobs and struggled with childcare and rent. “These are students who may not have access to reliable high-speed internet, they don’t have an up-to-date laptop or even a suitable homework space in which to study,” said Shapiro.

Surprisingly, online institutions didn’t immediately capitalize on the pandemic. Undergraduate enrollments at 28 online institutions were 4 percent lower during the summer of 2020 compared to a year earlier. However, enrollments for graduate students were up 6 percent at online schools.  Another puzzle was men. There were 5 percent fewer male students going to summer school this year. Female student enrollment actually increased by almost 2 percent.

Data like this keeps us all honest. When the pandemic first hit, there were anecdotal reports that students were turning away from pricey four-year institutions and opting instead for cheaper community colleges. “When you don’t have data, you tend to hear the most from colleges that are doing well,” said Shapiro. “We heard a lot from some community colleges that were seeing increases in students. The colleges that are seeing declines are less vocal about it.”

When you look at the full data, community college enrollment was down 6 percent while student enrollment at four-year universities was up by 3 to 4 percent. Students may still flock to community colleges before this coronavirus recession is over. After the 2008 recession, it took 18 months for unemployed adults to realize that they weren’t going to get another job anytime soon and the best option for them was to go back to school.

This story about the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s  Stay Informed report 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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