College Enrollments Remained Fairly Stable In Spring, Following The Pandemic

New data show that the coronavirus pandemic, which hit college campuses in the middle of the spring semester, had little overall effect on the official enrollment status of students during that term. That’s the main takeaway – and a bit of good news for America’s colleges – from a research report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released today.

The Center’s Covid-19 Supplement showed that even after most colleges shut down their campuses and moved to remote rather than in-person instruction, the number of students withdrawing or changing their enrollment between full- and part-time remained consistent with what has been observed in prior spring semesters.

The report is a unique supplement to the Clearinghouse’s Spring 2020 Current Term Enrollment Estimates Report, published in May, which showed that the national decline in college enrollment over the last few years had slowed slightly, from about 1.5% annually to only .5%.

But the pandemic raised a host of new questions about what its effects on spring enrollment would be, after institutions were forced almost overnight to alter their calendars, modes of instruction and campus availability. The supplement examines changes in undergraduate enrollment data submitted by institutions in April and May, thereby allowing a quantitative analysis of enrollment changes taking place within the spring semester.

Key Findings:

  1. In spring 2020, most students maintained the same enrollment intensity (e.g., full-time, part-time) from the start to the end of term. In 2018 and 2019, only 13% of students changed enrollment status during the term. In 2020, 12% changed their status. The overall rate and the pattern of withdrawals and increased or reduced intensity within the spring 2020 term were no different from the average rate and patterns of 2018 and 2019.
  2. Most students who increased their enrollment from part-time to three-quarter or full-time typically did so in January, the same time observed in previous years and prior to any pandemic impact. In other words, significant numbers of newly unemployed adult learners did not increase their enrollment intensity to full-time after the pandemic began, an outcome that had been expected by some higher education observers.
  3. However, the majority of reductions in enrollment intensity, such as changes to part-time (67%), leaves of absence (66%), or withdrawals (61%), occurred in March or later. In contrast with prior years, the peak time for these changes shifted this year to after the pandemic. Reduced enrollment intensity peaked in April after the shutdowns, later than in previous years.
  4. In 2018 and 2019, leaves of absence during the spring term accounted for .026% of all enrollees. But that number almost doubled to .045%% in 2020 (about 6,400 students). Leaves of absence spiked in March and April, up 206% and 287%, respectively. African American and Hispanic students increased their use of leaves of absence by 206% and 287%, respectively, much higher than increases among whites (70%) or Asians (59%). Because a relatively small number of institutions (600) have reported their leave-of-absence data, it’s possible that the number of students taking that option may not yet be fully known.
  5. In 2018 and 2019, about 90,000 new enrollments occurred with a start date in April. These are students who were not enrolled as of January; they are not necessarily first-time students. In 2020, this number dropped dramatically – to only 17,000. While it might have been expected – following widespread workforce layoffs in March – that newly unemployed adults would have quickly sought to enroll in for-profit or online institutions known for their flexible calendars, that did not occur. Across all institutions, there was no significant new enrollment growth within the 2020 spring term. In fact, the opposite took place – far fewer new enrollments in April 2020 than in April of the previous two years.

To summarize: within-term enrollment status changes were uncommon in spring 2020, and for the most part, followed the same patterns as in pre-pandemic years. While the numbers of students dropping to part-time remained unchanged from levels in 2018 and 2019, leaves of absence (which are relatively rare under any circumstances) almost doubled. Reductions in enrollment intensity occurred later in the semester than in prior years. An anticipated – or hoped for – influx of new students after the pandemic became known, did not occur.

“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.”

So now attention turns to the summer and fall terms and the possible impact of the pandemic on student enrollment patterns. The Center plans to continue tracking enrollment numbers on a regular basis, and those data will be especially revealing with respect to what happens at colleges employing different calendars and types of reopening (on-campus instruction vs. remote learning vs. hybrid strategies).

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