Enrollment declines for 2020 high school grads may not be as big as projected

by Jeremy

Dive Brief:

  • New data from the National Student, Clearinghouse Research Center indicates that the drop-off in high school graduates immediately enrolling in college this fall may not be as dramatic as initially reported.
  • An earlier report estimated a 22% decrease among recent graduates, a figure the Clearinghouse now says results from a “process error” that overestimated the degree of change.
  • Updated figures, which account for just 14% of U.S. high schools, show a decrease of 6.8% year over year. Low-income high schools are “slightly overrepresented” in the data, the report notes.

Dive Insight:

Although the latest sample accounts for only a sliver of high schools nationwide, the trend of more significant losses in students from low-income and high-minority high schools noted in earlier data persists. And a 6.8% decline would still be “unprecedented” for a single year.

According to the Clearinghouse, year-over-year changes in enrollment didn’t vary much by schools based on income and racial and ethnic demographics before the pandemic. This year, however, significant disparities appear in the data.


Immediate enrollment of students from high-poverty schools fell 11.4% this fall among the schools reporting a decrease of 1.6% in fall 2019. On the other hand, low-poverty schools saw a 2.9% drop this fall compared to a 1.4% decrease the prior year. These declines stand to widen the gap in college enrollment between these schools.

Early data on fall 2021 applications indicates these trends could continue. Students from low-income schools and those with high shares of Black and Hispanic students request federal financial aid at lower rates. However, recent Common App data suggests low-income and first-generation students are applying to college at roughly the same rates as last year. Undergraduate enrollment shrank nearly 4% last fall, with a sharper drop among incoming students. First-time registration fell 13% overall, and even more so at community colleges, which bore the brunt of the season’s losses.

Those schools are leading the decrease in immediate enrollment among spring 2020 graduates based on Clearinghouse data so far, which would mark a significant drop-off from a year ago.  The Clearinghouse notes the pandemic didn’t majorly impact overall high school graduation rates last year, based on its data so far.

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