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How Was College Enrollment Impacted by Shutdowns and Online-Only Classes Amid COVID-19?

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center Shows Effects on Postsecondary Enrollment

HERNDON, VA (JUNE 30, 2020) – The latest data shows that the pandemic crisis does not appear to have had any major effect on students’ enrollment statuses during the spring term, regardless of demographic characteristics or institution types, according to a new research report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Even after the campus shutdowns, the numbers of students withdrawing or changing intensity, between full- and part-time, were mostly consistent with prior years.

“Little or no change in enrollment status is a reassuring sign that most college students were able to stay on course during the first two months of the pandemic,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “However, there were early signs of broader impacts that are underway. Data reveals the emergence of small but concerning racial and ethnic patterns, as more students took leaves of absence than in pre-pandemic years, particularly African Americans and Hispanics.”

Main Findings include:

  • Intra-term changes in enrollment status during spring 2020 were consistent with pre-pandemic years.
  • Students who increased enrollment intensity (from part-time to higher or full-time) typically did so in January, showing no signs of the pandemic impact. But the peak time for all other types of status changes has shifted this year.
  • Reduced enrollment intensity peaked in April after the shutdowns, later than in previous years.
  • While overall withdrawal rate remained at pre-pandemic levels, the withdrawal peaks for community college students shifted from March to April.
  • More students appeared to take approved leaves of absence, particularly in March and April. These leaves are rare, but the percent taking leaves nearly doubled, to 0.045% of students who started the term. Particularly, African American, and Hispanic students taking leaves increased fastest among all groups.
  • New enrollments in April 2020 were far below prior years’ April numbers.

The Spring 2020 Current Term Enrollment Estimates Report published in May 2020 showed that, pre-pandemic, the steady national decline in college enrollment over the last few years had slowed slightly, from about 1.5 percent annually to just 0.5 percent this year.

Background information

The new report, A COVID-19 Supplement to Spring 2020 Current Term Enrollment Estimates, serves as a first look at the effects of COVID-19 on postsecondary enrollments, as measured by intra-term status changes, compared to the two previous years, spring 2018 and spring 2019, as the baselines. The supplement report adds the in-pandemic enrollment data from April and May 2020 to the pre-pandemic spring 2020 enrollment report. The research examines all students who enrolled in Title IV degree-granting institutions in the United States as either full time, three-quarters time, half time, or less than half time during the spring term in 2020.

The report’s interactive data dashboard (available on the Research Center website) shows the impacts for different institutions, including Historically Black College and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, rural or urban institutions, high transfer, or highly vocational community colleges. In addition, the appendix offers intra-term changes by state and by student demographics (age, gender, and race/ethnicity) at both undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as for primarily online institutions.

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 https://nscresearchcenter.org.


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