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Home » About the Clearinghouse » Media Center » Fall 2020 College Enrollment Declines 2.5%: Nearly Twice the Rate of Decline of Fall 2019

Enrollment Gaps Appear to Be Widening Because of COVID-19 and the Recession

Media contact: Todd Sedmak, or 703-742-4837

HERNDON, VA — (Dec. 17, 2020) — Overall postsecondary enrollments declined 2.5 percent in fall 2020, nearly twice the rate of enrollment decline reported in fall 2019, according to the final fall 2020 enrollment report issued by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The nation’s fall, total unduplicated postsecondary enrollment fell from 17.9 million students in 2019 to 17.5 million students in 2020.

In fall 2019, overall postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.3 percent or more than 231,000 students. The annual Fall Current Term Enrollment Estimates provides enrollment declines and increases for each state and the District of Columbia.

In 2020, undergraduate enrollment drove the decline by decreasing 3.6 percent or over 560,200 students from 2019. Sharp declines at public two-year institutions of more than 544,200 students contributed the most to the decline (See Table 3). Furthermore, the freshman enrollment decline of 13.1 percent or more than 327,500 students over last fall is unprecedented (See Table 2).

In a bright spot, graduate enrollment increased by over 98,800 students, or 3.6 percent from the previous fall. The 12 states increasing enrollment compared to 2019 are: Arizona, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

“As the fall semester comes to a close, the impact of the pandemic seems to be disproportionately affecting disadvantaged students by keeping them out of college,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “The data reveal that community colleges and freshmen saw the steepest drops in enrollment, while the declines among four-year colleges and continuing undergraduates were generally much smaller.

“Looking through the additional lens of 2020 high school graduates, we observe an even sharper picture, as the immediate college enrollments of those from high poverty, low income, and urban high schools have been hit the hardest. The enrollment gaps appear to be widening because of COVID-19 and the recession.”

Other key findings include:

  • Public college enrollment (two-year and four-year institutions combined), which enrolls 7 out of 10 postsecondary students, declined by 4% or nearly 530,000 students this fall, mainly because of decreases at public two-year institutions.
  • Public two-year institutions, in line with what we have documented throughout the fall, recorded undergraduate enrollment losses of over 544,200 students or 10.1% over last year.
  • Private nonprofit four-year institutions saw declines of roughly 36,000 undergraduate students, offset by increases in graduate students for a 0.1% decrease in total enrollment.
  • Public four-year institution enrollments increased 0.2 percent or an additional 14,300 students from last fall, driven by the growth in graduate enrollment of more than 62,500 students, and Undergraduate-level certificate or other non-degree program enrollments certificate other non-degree program enrollments of nearly 17,000 students.
  • Private for-profit four-year institutions grew by 5.3 percent over last year and was the only sector to demonstrate enrollment growth at both the undergraduate and graduate levels (See Table 3). This sector accounts for 4.4% of national postsecondary enrollment.
  • The freshman enrollment decline of 13.1 percent or more than 327,500 students over last fall is unprecedented (See Table 2). Sharp declines at public two-year institutions of more than 207,200 students or a 21% decrease contributed the most to the decline, falling at a rate almost 20 times higher than the prior year’s decline (pre-pandemic). Private nonprofit four-year colleges also saw double-digit declines of more than 45,500 freshmen or a 10.5% decrease, followed by public four-year institutions of more than 81,600 or an 8.1% decrease. Private for-profit institutions showed an increase in freshman enrollment of 9.5%, or 3,178 students.
  • Unlike in spring 2020, when dual enrollments of high school students grew 6.9 percent from the previous year, the fall growth rate fell to 0.8% or 8,400 dual enrollees (See Table 5).
  • Public two-year institutions still enrolled most dual enrollees (61.9%), but this proportion is 0.8 percentage points below last year’s share. Public four-year institutions made the most gains in dual enrollments with more than 10,200 students or a 3.3% increase, and now comprise 30.5 percent of all dual enrollments in fall 2020.
  • Sharp declines in public two-year colleges are linked to corresponding drops in popular major fields (See Table 11). The largest enrollment decline occurred in Liberal Arts/General Studies (209,400 students, 11.9% decrease), followed by Business/Management (over 52,300 students, 9.2% decrease). Health Professions/Related majors remained unchanged from last year (approximately 18,600 students, 2.3% decrease).
  • Graduate enrollment increases were evident across all institution sectors, with the largest increase seen at public four-year institutions by over 62,500 students or a 4.6% increase (See Table 3).

Background information

The Fall 2020 Current Term Enrollment Estimates (CTEE) Report provides the Research Center’s final estimates of postsecondary enrollment numbers based on the Clearinghouse universe of institutions, after accounting for data coverage rates. This differs from the Stay Informed report series that is designed to quantify the immediate effects of COVID-19 by analyzing year-over-year percentage change in unadjusted, preliminary data for fixed panels of institutions that reported data in the same month each year from fall 2018 to fall 2020. The estimated enrollment numbers presented in the CTEE report may differ from the results of the Stay Informed reports due to differences in methodology and institution coverage.

The CTEE Series, published every December and May, provides national enrollment estimates by institutional sector, enrollment intensity, age group, gender, major field as well as state-level enrollment estimates. As of fall 2020, postsecondary institutions actively submitting enrollment data to the Clearinghouse account for 97 percent of the total enrollments at Title IV, degree-granting institutions in the United States.

About the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes.

The Research Center currently collects data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97 percent of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments in degree-granting institutions, as of 2018. Clearinghouse data track enrollments nationally and are not limited by institutional and state boundaries. To learn more, visit