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  • Fall 2020 Enrollment in US: Initial undergrad numbers down 2.5% from last year, and other observations

Fall 2020 Enrollment in US: Initial undergrad numbers down 2.5% from last year, and other observations

After months of speculation, we have the first large-scale estimation of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on US higher education enrollment thanks to the National Student Clearinghouse’s First Look Report on Fall 2020. The headlines:

With 22 percent of colleges reporting as of September 10, undergraduate enrollments are running 2.5 percent below last year’s level.

International undergraduate enrollments are down 11 percent, along with American Indian and Native Alaskan students (-8%), White students and Black students (-6% each), and community college students overall (-8%).

When considering headline number, hold off on the judgement on undergraduate enrollments a little while – the 2.5% drop includes various credential types. For undergraduate enrollment, all sectors dropped but community colleges have been hardest hit with a estimated 7.5% drop from last year.

Interestingly, graduate enrollment increased across the board, with private nonprofits increasing the least and private for-profits increasing the most.

When looking at credential type, we get the interesting case where undergraduate certificate program enrollment is estimated to have dropped by 9.7% while post baccalaureate certificate program enrollment increase by 24.2%.

To pick back up on the headline number, it turns out that degree-seeking 4-year undergraduate enrollment – bachelor’s students – dropped by just 0.5%. Most of the undergraduate enrollment decrease in the headline comes from associate’s degrees (-7.5%) and from undergraduate certificates (-9.7%). Meanwhile, enrollment for students seeking a master’s degree actually increased by 6%.

It is also worth keeping in mind that total US higher education enrollment has been decreasing organically (i.e. without a pandemic) by up to 1.7% per year for the past eight years. As a reminder of the Fall 2019 data from the National Student Clearinghouse:

There is more data available at the original link, at Tableau Public, or at the embedded Tableau charts below, including by student ethnicity and by state (although this initial estimate only has sufficient data for 26 states).

Keep in mind that this is the first monthly estimate on the Fall 2020 enrollment. The next report with more complete data is scheduled for October 15th. This aspect is more important than usual this year, as student retention is likely to have a much bigger impact on final enrollment numbers. But at least for now we have the best broad-based data on what the actual impact of COVID-19 is on initial enrollment.