COVID is Changing College Enrollment. Here’s How.

An empty college lecture hall

As the coronavirus pandemic stretched through spring and deep into summer, schools prepared for the worst. Most schools of all levels closed in March when the pandemic began and remained shuttered through the summer. But when it was time to physically re-open for the 2020-21 school year, colleges, in particular, saw a COVID-driven change in one key area: enrollment.

New reports show that colleges are experiencing drops in enrollment and fewer students are attending college than in years past. While this is happening for a number of reasons, the pandemic and its fallout are the central factors driving down enrollment. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that, on average, enrollment was down four percent this year. While this trend is worrying in itself, it could bode poorly for this generation’s overall economic future.

College Enrollment Trends

Some universities and colleges have actually grown their student bodies this year, but the average school saw a downturn in students. The National Student Clearinghouse data shows that first-year students are the driving force behind this. First-year enrollment nationwide dropped 16.1 percent from 2019 to 2020. According to the NSC, first-years account for nearly 70 percent of this year’s enrollment losses.

Potential freshmen are choosing not to enroll for a wide variety of reasons. The first alarm bells sounded in August when Harvard announced that 20 percent of the incoming Class of 2024 deferred their acceptance for a year. This sparked widespread concern that enrollment would be down, and one study found that as many as 40 percent of incoming freshmen may choose not to attend.

The shift wasn’t that drastic but still represents a massive shakeup. Some students are opting to avoid a crowded physical campus, fearing outbreaks like so many schools have already encountered. Others are turned off by or unable to manage another semester of virtual learning. Or, because of the pandemic, some families may be struggling too much economically to cover another semester at this time.

What This Could Mean

While tools like the FAFSA exist to help low-income students find affordable education, student aid is only a partial solution. The financial aid system has been mismanaged and broken for a long time, and the pandemic made a bad situation worse. Now, millions of would-be students are taking a gap year or abandoning college entirely. While many may find jobs or apprenticeships, many will also struggle to find work in a hostile economic environment.

In addition, FAFSA applications are down this year. Particularly, applications from low-income students and students of color have trended negatively, prompting some experts to point out the issues this poses to educational equality.

“Without federal funding, these students most likely won’t attend, or they’ll drop out at some point with some debt but no degree. These students will be trying to enter the workforce—without a degree—in one of the weakest economies we’ve seen in a decade,” according to three experts at educational research firm EAB. “We also know that the longer a person waits to enroll in college, the less likely they are to earn a bachelor’s degree—the likelihood decreases by 30% after only one year off.”

Overall, it’s clear that a downturn in enrollment this year could have serious effects in the long run.

Other Findings

Interestingly, although undergraduate is down across the board, graduate enrollment is actually up compared to last year. This is part of a decade-long trend, but still surprising given the circumstances. Overall, graduate enrollment is up 2.7 percent from last year, with a 9 percent surge in students seeking graduate degrees from private colleges.

On the other hand, community colleges took a big hit this year. Community college enrollment fell nearly 10 percent, accelerating a decade of declining attendance.

You can access all of the NSC’s data here, and look through it yourself! The research center offers in-depth breakdowns of geographical changes, demographic impacts, and age group trends.

Read More: How COVID-19 Affects Your Student Loan Debt