Editor's note: This story has been updated with data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's Dec. 17 and Dec. 21 data release, which included its final enrollment figures for the fall term.
The pandemic's impact on higher education is expected to linger. Although lower enrollment levels this year could play a role, colleges aren't experiencing that trend equally.
For instance, while significantly fewer students attended community colleges this fall compared to a year ago, four-year for-profit colleges saw gains.
The following charts illustrate how enrollment levels are shaping up and the potential effects of that trend on tuition revenue. Note, some of the data is still preliminary, so we'll have a clearer picture as more colleges report their numbers.
Community college enrollment took a hit this fall, despite predictions that another recession would send people back to school like it did last time. Some research on the Great Recession's impact on college enrollment shows steeper gains a year or two after its onset, though enrollment still grew during that time.
Total undergraduate enrollment fell 3.6% from a year ago, but public two-year schools saw more than double that decline, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s final fall numbers.
Graduate enrollment followed a different pattern, rising 3.6% overall. Public four-year colleges led in that sector with a 4.6% annual gain. (An earlier Clearinghouse data release suggested four-year, for-profit colleges would have the biggest gain in graduate enrollment, but those numbers shifted as more schools reported data.)
Part-time enrollment was up slightly at four-year colleges in the Clearinghouse’s final data, while full-time enrollment dipped at publics and private nonprofits.
Enrollment trends this fall also vary somewhat by student demographic. While preliminary Clearinghouse data from November projected that all undergraduate student groups would see a decrease in their numbers year-over-year, the change was expected to be the most significant for Hispanic and Native American students. The final report did not break out enrollment by race and ethnicity.
The pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color. People who are Black, Hispanic or Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native are dying as a result of the virus at higher rates than White and Asian people, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project. And the pandemic has hit Black and Latino households harder than White and Asian households, the Pew Research Center found.
A decrease in first-time college students across most of the sector surprised Clearinghouse officials, they told reporters on a conference call in October. The drop-off continued to be the most significant at community colleges, which reported the biggest decreases in the Clearinghouse’s final report.
Preliminary data show that fewer recent high school graduates matriculating at colleges this fall likely contributed to those losses; the Clearinghouse found that the pandemic did not have a material impact on 2020 high school graduation rates.
Primarily online colleges are another subset whose fall enrollment patterns are expected to deviate from the sectorwide trend. The Clearinghouse defines those schools as having more than 90% of students enrolled entirely online pre-pandemic. Of the 26 such institutions included in the Clearinghouse's November report, most were four-year, for-profit colleges.
The pandemic has been a marketing hook for some colleges with large online footprints, including but not limited to for-profits, according to a recent analysis of marketing behavior by left-aligned think tank The Century Foundation. "Schools from all sectors are getting mileage out of referencing 'uncertain times' months into the health and economic crisis," the report notes.
The sector might buck predictions that the pandemic would push students at four-year schools to transfer to two-year colleges. Rather, all forms of transfer decreased this fall, according to the final count from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (An earlier release of the data suggested the share of students transferring from two- to four-year colleges would rise.)
Students who left school without finishing a credential before the pandemic started were twice as unlikely as transfer students overall to have come back this fall.
The College Board found that tuition price growth slowed at public and private nonprofit schools this year before adjusting for inflation. The data comes after many schools reported cutting tuition or forgoing planned increases ahead of this academic year. The average tuition and fees for public four-year in-state students did not increase in 10 states before adjusting for inflation, and for in-district community college students in 14 states.
Enrollment declines have likely impacted tuition and fee revenue. Of nearly 300 college presidents surveyed in September by the American Council on Education, around four in 10 leaders of four-year colleges said tuition revenue decreased this fall. Just under half said income from fees fell. Many schools forfeited income from student housing and other auxiliary revenue sources by keeping campuses closed this term.