How Will the Next Recession Impact U.S. College Enrollment, Persistence and Completions?

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How Will the Next Recession Impact U.S. College Enrollment, Persistence and Completions?

Higher Ed Lessons Learned During the Great Recession May Provide Insights

HERNDON, VA(APRIL 15, 2020) – As the nation addresses the current economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data may help clarify how postsecondary pathways transpire during a recession and shed light for institutional and public policy makers to craft effective responses to respond to today’s uncertain times.

The findings presented in “National Postsecondary Enrollment Trends: Before, During, and After the Great Recession, showcased patterns among traditional-age, first-time students enrolling in colleges and universities for fall 2006 through 2010. The report includes detailed trend summaries and related tables; color charts broken down by regions, institution types, years, and other important variables; and insights.

Furthermore, Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates – Fall 2008 Cohort reveals that while a larger number of students enrolled during the peak of the recession, completion rates declined. The largest decrease in completions was among nontraditional age students.

“During the Great Recession, our data showed that the impact on postsecondary institutions is not immediate; community colleges and for-profits saw the greatest increases in enrollment, mostly among older students who showed up later in the recession,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “However, the coronavirus impact will likely be different, especially among out of state and international enrollments as many students will want to stay closer to home, and students that continue with on-line education options. State budgets will undoubtedly be hit hard again, even as some states were just now getting their higher education funding back up to pre-recession levels.”

The “National Postsecondary Enrollment Trends: Before, During, and After the Great Recession,” findings include:

  • Community colleges experienced dramatic increases in enrollment after a delay of one to two years.
  • The proportion of students enrolling full time in public two-year institutions increased slightly and four-year institutions saw virtually no change.
  • The four-year private sector maintained its market share more effectively than was predicted.
  • Each region of the country experienced distinct enrollment patterns.
  • Persistence rates (continued enrollment with any U.S. institution) fell as the cohort size surged, particularly in community colleges

The “Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates – Fall 2008 Cohort” found that the entering student population was 12 percent larger than the one in fall 2007 (approximately 2.7 million and 2.4 million, respectively). There was a 20 percent increase in the number of older students (over age 20) and a larger share of those enrolled less than full time (1.5 percentage points more than in fall 2007). In addition, the share of students enrolled in community colleges and four-year private for-profit institutions increased one percentage point each.

Completion rates fell as cohort sizes grew. The overall national six-year completion rate for the fall 2008 cohort was 55.0 percent, a decrease from the 56.1 percent completion rate for the fall 2007 cohort. Most of the decline occurred in the rate at which students graduated from their starting institution (42.1 percent for fall 2008 vs. 43.0 percent for fall 2007). There was almost no change in the rate at which students transferred and completed at a different institution. Other key stats include:

  • Some student populations experienced larger declines in their attainment rates, while others remained the same or actually increased.
  • Nontraditional age students saw the largest decline. The completion rate fell 2.6 percentage points for those who entered college at age 21 through 24, and 1.4 percentage points for adult learners over 24.
  • Traditional-age students experienced a 0.5 percent decline, attributable mostly to a small shift away from full-time enrollment
  • Completion rates held steady for traditional-age students who enrolled exclusively full-time, and increased slightly, by 0.3 percentage points, for those who combined full-time and part-time enrollments
  • The total completion rate for students who started in two-year public institutions declined 0.7 percentage points (39.1 percent for fall 2008 vs 39.8 percent for fall 2007)
  • There was a larger decline in the transfer pathway from two-year to four-year colleges: 16.2 percent of the students who started at community colleges went on to graduate from four-year schools, compared to 17.2 percent of the fall 2007 cohort
  • The completion rate for those who started in four-year private nonprofit institutions increased 0.7 percentage points. However, this group’s share of the total cohort for fall 2008 was 1.2 percentage points smaller than for fall 2007

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


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