The Pandemic’s Impact on College Enrollment

The Pandemic’s Impact on College Enrollment

March 10, 2021

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As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread across the U.S. early last year, higher education administrators and stakeholders anxiously wondered what this could mean for colleges and universities. But they weren't just nervous about having to shut down campuses and adapt to virtual learning — they feared students would scrap their plans to apply to college entirely.

College enrollment had already been on the decline, with a 2% drop in first-year enrollment in fall 2019. Schools worried this rate would plummet even further during the pandemic.

For some institutions, however, that hasn't been the case. In response to COVID-19, many elite schools temporarily suspended SAT/ACT testing requirements, leading to jumps in both early admission applicants and first-year applicants as a whole. Early decisions rose 49% at Columbia University and 57% at Harvard University.

But these numbers don't represent the bigger, more nuanced picture of college admissions. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment fell 4.4% in the fall. This includes an unprecedented 13% drop in first-year enrollment.

According to recent data, undergraduate enrollment fell 4.4% in the fall. This includes an unprecedented 13% drop in first-year enrollment.

Two-year institutions experienced the greatest loss, with an 18.9% drop in first-year enrollment compared to fall 2019. Community colleges often serve as a gateway to the middle class for low-income students, first-generation students, nontraditional students, and students of color, indicating that underserved students are abandoning their college plans in far greater numbers.

And that trend will likely continue. In November, the Common Application estimated that applications from first-generation and low-income students decreased about 10% from the year before.

"Our worst fears have been realized," said Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App. "Because what remains of the system that had already disadvantaged low-income, first-generation, and BIPOC students has made those students even more vulnerable."

Students of Color Experience Huge Enrollment Declines

The pandemic hit students of color particularly hard in terms of undergraduate enrollment, with Native American and Black students experiencing the greatest drops compared to the previous academic year.

Source: National Student Clearinghouse

Enrollment for first-year students at colleges and universities — which includes two- and four-year institutions and public and private schools — declined a whopping 13%. Of this group, Native American, Hispanic, and Black students witnessed the greatest enrollment drops.

Source: National Student Clearinghouse

"We're starting to see the impact of COVID on those students who normally have a tough time going to college in normal times, and now are struggling to figure out a way, not only how to get to college, how to enroll in college, but also how to pay for it," college admissions expert Jeffrey Selingo said in an interview with PBS.

Low-income students and students of color are more likely to experience financial hardship during the pandemic, and that loss of stability contributed profoundly to the massive enrollment decline.

"Their families might have been impacted by COVID health issues, big financial issues for the most part," explained Selingo. "And so those are the students that I most worry about, who were probably on the edge to begin with about going to college, and now, a year later, may not have the resources to actually enroll."

Community College Students More Likely to Alter Plans

These shocking enrollment trends could continue into this fall, according to research conducted by Columbia University's Community College Research Center (CCRC). The group surveyed around 25,000 households with at least one member with "plans for community college." Here's a snapshot of what CCRC has found, as of October:

In more than 40% of households, a prospective student canceled their community college plans. Meanwhile, 15% reported taking fewer classes or switching programs. About 45% of low-income prospective students canceled their community college plans, compared to around 13% of high-income students. Over one-third of households with prospective community college students said that the coronavirus was a significant factor impacting their college plans.

Fewer Low-Income Students Apply for Financial Aid

In September, approximately 100,000 fewer high school seniors — many of whom came from low-income households — completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) than the year before. This alone stands as a stark indicator that low-income students are less likely to apply for college during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has heightened preexisting inequities among financial aid opportunities in higher education.

By the end of January, the number of new college students who had filled out the FAFSA had dropped by 148,000, or nearly 10%, from the previous year.

A report from the public policy think tank Third Way found that the pandemic has heightened preexisting inequities among financial aid opportunities in higher education. Applying for financial aid is often an incredibly trying process, especially for low-income students, many of whom face additional challenges that have been intensified by COVID-19.

"Acknowledging and addressing these inequities [in financial aid] and the factors that contribute to them — including barriers to college affordability and disparities in student debt repayment — is imperative in a moment of crisis like the current pandemic," said Dominique Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University.

Educators Fear Enrollment Declines Could Reverberate

Experts agree that these college enrollment trends are concerning, especially considering that there's no guarantee students who didn't apply to college during the pandemic will apply again after the vaccine has been distributed and the U.S. adjusts to a post-COVID-19 world.

"When students, especially when low-income students leave higher education, the probability of them returning is highly unlikely," said Michele Siqueiros, president of Campaign for College Opportunity.

In his campaign, President Joe Biden pledged to make college — specifically community college — more accessible for students. In addition to supporting making community college free, Biden outlined a plan to make four-year colleges free for families making under $125,000. He also proposed doubling the annual Pell Grant amount to about $13,000.

Even if these plans come to fruition, would-be college students from this and last year would still miss out. As Selingo puts it, "We may see a lost class of 2024 and a lost class of 2025."


Feature Image: The Washington Post / Contributor / Getty Images

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