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Reports: Two-Year Colleges Hit Hard by Declining Enrollment

Enrollments rates have largely fallen during the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for two-year and community colleges, according to two recent reports from The College Board and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Dr. Jessica Howell

The College Board report, “College Enrollment and Retention in the Era of COVID,” examined how the pandemic affected Fall 2020 enrollment plans for the high school Class of 2020 and retention rates for the high school Class of 2019. The report is based on research from a sample of almost 10 million students.

“Overall, we document a 6.1% decline in college enrollment rates due to the pandemic, which amounts to about 120,000 fewer recent high school graduates enrolling in college right after high school graduation compared to last year,” said Dr. Jessica Howell, vice president for research at the College Board and co-author of the report. “The enrollment declines are a bit smaller among students in the four-year sector and a bit larger among students in the two-year sector.”

Class of 2020 enrollment rates – after adjusting for demographics, academic preparation and high school characteristics – at public two-year colleges fell the most, by 11.8%, according to the College Board report, while public four-year schools only saw a 2.8% decline.

“Analyses of student trajectories into different postsecondary sectors illuminate the most novel findings,” the College Board report noted. “Among students in the two-year sector, the pandemic most adversely affected the college trajectories of first-generation, underrepresented minority, and lower-achieving students from higher-poverty communities and high schools.”

Black students had the largest decrease in enrollment rates at public two-year colleges, with 15.5%, followed by 14.9% for Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students and 14.8% for Hispanic students, according to the College Board report. This stands in contrast with public and private nonprofit four-year schools, where white students had the largest decline, 4.5%, followed by 3.7% for American Indian or Alaska Native students and 3.5% for Asian students.

The enrollment story for the Class of 2020 is quite different among students in the four-year sector, the College Board report noted, “where some of the largest enrollment rate declines occurred among white and Asian students, students with college-educated parents and strong academic achievement from more affluent communities and high schools.”

Meanwhile, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s “COVID-19 Transfer, Mobility, and Progress: Final Look Spring 2021 Report” examined transfer enrollment trends between 2019 to 2020 and 2020 to 2021. The report includes data about 11.3 million undergraduate students, including 737,000 transfer students.

As for transfer students, the Clearinghouse Research Center report found that transfer enrollment fell 9.6% from a year ago, marking the biggest recorded decline of the pandemic.  Enrollment for transfer students decreased 12.6% in spring 2021, “reflecting the ripple effect of large enrollment shortfalls in fall 2020 on the number of students who continue enrollment in Spring 2021,” according to the report.

Dr. Doug Shapiro

“From a big picture, this is a continuation of what we saw in our First Look transfer report for the spring that we released in early April,” said Dr. Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “And we’re seeing the same trends of declining numbers of transfer students enrolling this spring compared to last spring, last year. So these are all year-over-year percentage changes in the number of transfer students enrolled. And those declines have deepened, so we’re seeing about 10% fewer students transferring colleges this spring, compared to last spring.”

Public two-year schools saw the worst of it, with transfer enrollment at those schools plummeting by 21.8% for continuing students, those who continued school from fall 2020 – to Spring 2021 as opposed to the 11.9% decline for the same group for Spring 2020.

Public two-year school transfer enrollment fell the most compared with other school types – a 16.3% decline – more than double the 8% decrease for Spring 2020.

“At community colleges, both transfer and non-transfer enrollments dropped double digits regardless of student age, gender, or race and ethnicity, except for adults ages 30 and older,” the Clearinghouse report noted.

Shapiro said that community college enrollment has been in decline even before the pandemic.

“But they were actually declining less for particularly Hispanic students and Black students who were growing demographically in terms of their participation in community colleges,” he noted. “And those trends have gotten much worse, so now they’re on a par with the white and Asian students at community colleges in terms of those declines.

“So you can say that even though the year-over-year decline this spring is roughly the same, as a comparison to what was happening in those population groups before the pandemic, the impact, the change from the pre-pandemic trend to what we’re seeing this year is much larger for Black and Latinx students.”

Arrman Kyaw can be reached at akyaw@diverseeducation.com