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NSC: Community College switching issue does not apply to Fall 2020 enrollment reporting

Two days ago I reported that the majority of the reported enrollment declines for community colleges over the past decade (and in particular 2015 – 2019) comes from an accounting classification issue and not just from fewer students.

It turns out, however, that the majority of reported community college enrollment declines are mislabeled, or at least are based on an artificial category change. Prodded by an astute email observation and suggestion from Jonathan Grudin from Microsoft, I decided to explore the data further. Looking at IPEDS Fall Enrollment data from 2012 through 2019, roughly half of the reported enrollment declines have come from community colleges adding bachelor degree options, changing their names, and reclassifying from public 2-year to public 4-year schools. The same schools, with primarily the same programs and policies, are getting counted in different categories and artificially impacting the reporting on enrollment trends.

At the end I pointed out that it is unclear if the pandemic-reporting from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) includes this sector-switching factor.

We do not know yet how significant the sector-switching issue is for the crucial pandemic enrollment estimates, since IPEDS data is current through Fall 2019 and NSC data is not available at the institutional level, but it would help for NSC to break this data out in their reports. Enrollment losses are real and worth considering, but we need the full story.

I contacted NSC via email and got the following response this morning [emphasis added].

As we were developing our COVID-19 publications last fall, we kept an eye on these primarily AA granting institutions. After the 1st fall release, as expected, the question started to come in from colleagues at AACC, the Aspen Institute, CCRC, etc.

The sector-switching issue had no impact on the year-over-year enrollment changes we reported in the Stay Informed series. Our reporting is restricted to the fixed panel of institutions and whatever the institution sector defined by the latest IPEDS data is applied consistently across all comparison years 2018-2020. We can estimate the COVID’s effect without disruptions of the sector reclassifications in between years. Therefore, Phil’s concern is not applicable to our reported declines at community colleges. In fact, the community college sector would have shown larger declines if these institutions were added back to CCs.

We separately tracked the primarily AA granting institution enrollment trends and we noted in the pop-up note that “also experienced significant enrollment losses” in the report. Although we didn’t publish the number, these institutions had a 12% drop (as of Oct 22, as shown in the Nov 12th report) compared to a 9.5% drop for community colleges.

Also depending on the purpose of the research, we sometimes treat these institutions as CCs. Our COVID transfer reports are such example, where transfers from these institutions to other four-year institutions are upward transfers, not lateral transfers.

The “Stay Informed” series is NSC’s Covid-19 pandemic reporting that was first released in September 2020. What this means is that the reported 9.5% estimated drop in public 2-year enrollments from Fall 2019 to 2020 cannot be explained mostly by sector switches in the same way as IPEDS-based reporting (or prior NSC reporting) up to Fall 2019. The public 2-year declines due to the pandemic are real, and the difference in trends from prior years could be bigger than we previously understood.

NSC Stay Informed sector-based enrollment estimates from Fall 2019 - 2020, showing 9.5% drop in public 2-year category.

I appreciate NSC’s response and clarity on this issue. This is important information.