Spring 2021 Enrollment Update: The flight to heavily online institutions

The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) released Spring 2021 enrollment estimates for US higher education today, and the results are worse than expected. Inside Higher Ed’s lede:

Spring undergraduate enrollment fell 5.9 percent compared to this time last year, the largest drop since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Community colleges were particularly hard hit, with a double-digit enrollment decrease of 11.3 percent, down from 9.5 percent in fall 2020. [snip]

“I think there were many people who thought students might only stop out for a term and once they see the situation improving, they might re-enroll or start up in the spring,” [executive director of NSC] Shapiro said. “And that’s clearly not happening. Declines at the four-year and the two-year institutions are larger than they were last term.”

The key graphic from NSC shows the enrollment drops by sector.

NSC enrollment data by sector for Spring 2021, showing decreases across the board

There’s additional coverage by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Higher Ed Dive that is worth checking out.

Clarification on Community College Data

Before talking about the flight to heavily online institutions, it is worth clarifying whether or not the NSC data factor in the sector changes. I called out in March that historical NSC data and ongoing IPEDS data methodologies overstate community college enrollment declines.

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.

During the pandemic, however, NSC has eliminated this sector changing issue by keeping all institutions within their Fall 2018 reported sectors. In the current methodology section, NSC describes how the data is “restricted to the fixed panel of institutions, and the institution sector identified by the IPEDS data is applied consistently across all comparison years 2019-2021.” Kudos to NSC for their data methodologies and transparent descriptions, but this data set is truly problematic for community colleges.

The Flight to Heavily Online Institutions

What is quite interesting is the reverse story for “primarily online institutions,” or POIs, in the NSC data. POIs are defined as “any institution that reports more than 90 percent of its undergraduate and graduate combined enrolling exclusively in distance education courses prior to the pandemic.” For this group, enrollment continued to increase across the board.

Enrollment at POIs show increases across the board.

But this chart actually understates the flight to institutions that were heavily invested in online education prior to the pandemic. The 90% definition excludes large universities such as Arizona State University that have large online populations. ASU reported increased enrollment for Spring 2021.

Arizona State University welcomes a record number of students back for the spring 2021 semester — including thousands who are studying at ASU for the first time.

Overall, approximately 122,000 students are enrolled for the spring semester, an increase of more than 7% over last January. ASU Online saw a 19% increase, and immersion (on-campus) enrollment has held steady with the previous semester with nearly 69,000 students enrolling in the Valley and throughout the state.

I also noticed that the data coverage most likely excludes Southern New Hampshire University, which is a POI but did not make it into the current NSC estimate based on the 28% coverage for undergraduate enrollments in New Hampshire.

In the recent Ellucian Live users conference, SNHU president Paul LeBlanc described the significant enrollment increases – from 133k to 170k in the past year – at that institution.

Make no mistake, one of the trends we are seeing is a flight of students toward institutions that had deep experience in online education and a broad set of offerings prior to the pandemic – let’s call them heavily online institutions. Traditional college enrollment is down in the US, particularly for community colleges, but there are a group of institutions that are seeing record enrollments, and one of the biggest factors is prior investment in online.

NSC Data Visualizations

There is more data available at the original link, at Tableau Public, or at the embedded Tableau charts below.