COVID-19’s dramatic impact on college enrollment in 1 year

The annual High School Benchmarks study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows stunning declines year over year for colleges, lower-income students.
By: | December 10, 2020
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Progression or regression?

The percentage of students who graduated from high school this year and did not immediately enter college dropped precipitously from 2019 – a decrease of 22% – according to early results of a report released Thursday from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

In a special analysis of the annual High School Benchmarks 2020 – National College Progression Rates, the Clearinghouse data shows an alarming free-fall in the postsecondary enrollment rate in reporting through mid-September. Most notably, the rate of enrollment among low-income students dropped by 29% year-over-year.

“Based on preliminary data, there is little evidence that COVID-19 impacted high school graduation,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “However, the pandemic impacted high school graduates in their immediate college enrollment. 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.

“I really want to be clear, this 22% is huge. We’ve been producing this Benchmarks report annually since 2013.  We’ve never seen a change of more than a couple of percentage points in a year.”

The overall dip in those enrolling in the fall (21.7%) was nearly eight times the amount of the drop from 2018 to 2019 (-2.9%), according to the Clearinghouse.

Perhaps more telling was the disparity this year among students from individual subgroups that have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Low-income high schools: A 29.2% drop vs. a 16.9% drop for those in higher-income schools
  • High-minority high schools: A 26.4% drop vs. an 18% drop for those in low-minority schools
  • High-poverty high schools: A 32.6% drop vs. a 16.4% drop for those in low-poverty schools
  • Urban high schools: A 25.1% drop vs. 19.8% and 18.1% drops, respectively, for those in suburban and rural high schools.

“We knew in our hearts and the early experiences of our advisors across the country that this was a slow-motion crisis in the making,” said Kim Cook, executive director of the National Collegiate Attainment Network. “Now these data verify that. The findings are a stunning confirmation of our worst fears overall, and more so for students from high-poverty-and-hunger minority high schools. These data must be an urgent call to action.”

Inside the numbers

The expansive Clearinghouse report covered colleges and 2,300 high schools from a variety of demographic areas across the United States. It showed the scope of the impact to all higher education institutions and built on several other reports that highlighted the struggles of all higher ed institutions to reach enrollment targets.

In the special update, the Clearinghouse noted the stark contrast in immediate enrollment from 2019 numbers to 2020 numbers:

  • At community colleges: a 30.3% drop, compared with a 0.7% gain in 2019
  • At private four-year non-profits: a 28.6% drop, compared with a 5.9% decline in 2019.
  • At public four-year institutions: a 13.8% drop, compared with a 4% decline in 2019.

In its main report on High School Benchmarks, the Clearinghouse noted a 24% difference in the number of graduates from higher-income schools enrolling immediately over their lower-income peers. Those students from higher-income schools also had better outcomes once they reached the postsecondary level. As for graduating within six years, only 23% of students from low-poverty schools achieved degrees, compared with 60% of those at higher income schools.