Higher Ed Trends During the Pandemic: What’s New and What’s Next
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on higher education. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center analyzed data during the pandemic to report the number of students who enroll, transfer, graduate, or stop out of college.
Why is this important? By understanding the overall trends in higher education and comparing it to their own student data, institutions can gain valuable insights to help increase student success.
Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the Research Center, describes below how the pandemic impacted higher education and what’s to come as the 2022-2023 school year gets underway.
National Student Clearinghouse: After two full academic years in a pandemic, what might we expect for the data you’ll be studying on students pursuing higher education this fall?
Doug Shapiro: While we may be nearing the end of the pandemic, the effects that it has had on students will be felt for a long time. We will continue to measure current term enrollments, transfers, graduation rates, and other areas we have researched over the past two years.
This fall, we’ll also look closely at the students who were impacted by the pandemic during the past two years. For example, we want to know what happened to the students who stopped out. Did they return to college or continue on a different path? We also understand more about those who decided not to enroll in college during the pandemic. Have they decided to enroll at this point, or have they decided against college?
Clearinghouse: What is the most significant trend you have seen with college enrollments in the fall? Is it still down considerably?
Shapiro: The biggest trend we’ve seen in the past two terms is a steep decline in enrollment. The sharpest declines were seen at broader-access, or less selective, four-year universities. We saw larger declines at these colleges in the fall of 2021 than in the first year of the pandemic. This suggests that more middle- or low-income students are concerned about the cost of college. The number of freshmen and the total number of students at community colleges are also down. However, enrollment has begun to recover among elite colleges and universities.
Clearinghouse: Understanding this is a prediction, are there any enrollment data outliers worth noting that could take shape for this fall?
Shapiro: Our data shows that in the spring of 2022, enrollment of first-time students in community colleges slightly increased from the spring of 2021. That gives us hope that we might also see some improvement in the freshman numbers in the fall. However, we’ll have to wait until December, when we have enrollment data in from colleges and universities, to see if that hope is realized.
Clearinghouse: What is your most recent data on trends in college majors?
Shapiro: We have seen a decline in liberal arts, communications, and some health professions at four-year institutions, which is worrisome. On the other hand, community colleges have seen an uptick in the number of students pursuing skilled trade programs, like construction, transportation, and mechanic and repair technologies. Those indicators suggest that community college students are responding to the current labor market.
Clearinghouse: How should colleges and universities best utilize this data to develop and shape their plans?
Shapiro: I think it’s always helpful for institutions to look at our national and state research reports and benchmarks to understand the student’s demographics. Instead of just looking at the programs, majors, and types of schools, institutions should also look at the types of students. Are they older or younger, minorities or other demographic groups of students? That can help institutions to develop plans to attract students—those who never enrolled and those who may have stopped out since the pandemic.
These non-freshmen and the stop-outs can be identified using the Clearinghouse’s StudentTracker services. Colleges and universities can search for students who may have applied to their school in the past and find out if they’re enrolled somewhere else. In addition, they can connect with local high schools that have StudentTracker reports to see where graduates may have enrolled for college.
Clearinghouse: As we look past the back-to-school season, what other data is the Research Center mining for the 2022-2023 school year that will resonate for academic institutions?
Shapiro: Our “Some College, No Credential” report, which found that 39 million Americans have attended college at some point, but have not earned a degree, will be updated this coming year. This information can help colleges better understand who stopped out, and who has been coming back, so they can effectively reach out to this group and ensure that they have the programs and services in place to support these students when they return.
We’re also starting to have enough data from schools participating in our Postsecondary Data Partnership to study individual course-taking patterns and things like credit accumulation rates, which are early indicators of student success. Again, we saw some interesting results that will challenge colleges and universities to find ways to address some troubling trends and equity gaps among different student populations so that all students can succeed.
Clearinghouse: What specific challenges are ahead for learning institutions that the Clearinghouse is tackling with its research and data?
Shapiro: We know that institutions are increasingly challenged to make a stronger case for the return on investment of their programs. We’re very excited at the Research Center to have just completed a successful pilot program that does just that. Through a new partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, we can obtain estimates of employment and earnings by year after students complete an industry credential. The next stage is to expand the research for actual college degrees and majors. We’re looking to do a lot more research to help institutions to respond to this growing expectation on the parts of students and families.
Clearinghouse: For schools, foundations, and states that would like to seek special research with the Clearinghouse, what would you say to them?
Shapiro: They should get in touch with us. For example, if you’re reading one of our published reports and you say, “wow, this is a fascinating national finding, but I’d like to see that specifically for my region or a subset of the student population,” we can aggregate the data as needed. This is part of our Custom Research services. The Research Center can also conduct sponsored research in partnership with foundations or other institutions.
For more information on the reports and data provided by the National Student Clearinghouse, visit the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Also, register today for a discussion on the key findings of the COVID-19 Transfer, Mobility, and Progress First Two Years of the Pandemic Report on September 13, 2022, at 2 pm, ET.
“While we may be nearing the end of the pandemic, the effects that it has had on students will be felt for a long time.”
Executive Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center