How the pandemic is affecting college enrollment of new high school grads

by Jeremy


Dive Brief:

  • The higher education sector lost enrollment during the pandemic, but a new analysis based on data from nearly 10 million recent high school graduates provides a more detailed look at who was missing from campuses this year.
  • Using its own data and that from the National Student Clearinghouse, the College Board found that community colleges generally lost would-be incoming students who are lower-income and lower-achieving, and those from underrepresented groups. Four-year institutions lost higher-achieving students from wealthier high schools. 
  • Four-year colleges had more success retaining students than did community colleges during the pandemic, though the focus solely on recent high school graduates offers a more limited view into trends, particularly at public two-year schools.

Dive Insight:

The researchers primarily examined enrollment data for spring 2020 high school graduates and persistence and retention data for spring 2019 graduates.

At public two-year colleges, enrollment decreased the most among first-generation students, those from underrepresented groups and lower-achieving students from high-poverty high schools, according to the analysis. 

Four-year schools, meanwhile, reported some of the biggest enrollment declines among White and Asian students, along with those whose parents attended college and high-achieving students from affluent high schools.

Four-year schools were more likely to retain first-year students, who graduated from high school in spring 2019, than community colleges. But within the four-year sector, lower-cost schools retained students at higher rates than those with higher posted tuition and fees, compared to students who started the year before. Emergency financial aid from federal relief packages along with more flexible grading policies could have affected retention increases, the researchers note.

Additionally, public four-year colleges saw smaller drops in their in-state enrollment than their out-of-state numbers, while private nonprofits saw equal decreases.

Community colleges took the biggest enrollment hit of all institution types during the pandemic. But the data shows some variation. Community colleges in counties with high daily coronavirus case rates or high unemployment saw slightly larger enrollment declines than other two-year schools.

Chart showing regression-adjusted change in enrollment rates between the high school classes of 2019 and 2020.

The College Board says its regression-adjusted rates aim to control for pre-pandemic trends related to student demographics and college-going in order to show only the pandemic’s effect on enrollment.

College Board’s “College Enrollment and Retention in the Era of Covid” report.



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