- College enrollment fell 2.5% this fall from a year ago, almost twice the rate of decline reported in 2019 and representing more than 460,000 students, according to final figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released Thursday.
- Undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.6% during the period — a difference of more than 560,000 students. It was driven by double-digit decreases at community colleges and among first-time students.
- Graduate enrollment gains partially offset those declines, rising 3.6% year-over-year, with the most significant increase at public four-year schools.
The new data caps off a closely watched set of updates that gradually filled in the fall 2020 enrollment picture as more colleges reported their numbers to the Clearinghouse.
College officials expressed concern this spring that the switch to online learning and the pandemic's economic pressures would lead to decreased enrollment. The final data indicates the pandemic indeed had a significant effect on how many students attended college this fall.
Although the Clearinghouse found that the pandemic didn't impact high school graduation rates, the share of recent graduates who went right on to college this fall is projected to decrease from a year ago, according to preliminary data.
In all, U.S. colleges enrolled 327,500 fewer first-time students this fall, a 13.1% drop that the organization called "unprecedented." Community colleges bore the brunt of those losses. Public two-year colleges enrolled 544,200 fewer students overall this fall — a 10% decrease and the biggest across all institution types.
Community college enrollment was shrinking by around 1% to 3% annually over the last few years, as the U.S. unemployment rate dropped. So the abrupt decrease this fall is indicative of the pandemic's effect, Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, told reporters on a call Wednesday.
Shapiro said this could be because early in the health crisis, people thought the economy would bounce back, or that current conditions have made it difficult to offer the hands-on training popular at two-year schools. Some community college programs with the biggest enrollment decreases this fall are in fields that may be difficult to teach online, Shapiro noted (see table below).
The new data doesn't break out enrollment trends by students' race and ethnicity, but earlier reports showed significant losses among Native American and Black undergraduates. Additionally, low-income and high-poverty high schools sent far fewer 2020 graduates to college this fall.
Graduate student gains helped steady enrollment at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges. The for-profit, four-year sector was the only one to record undergraduate and graduate growth, though it accounts for only about 4% of overall enrollment.
It's possible displaced workers will show up in college enrollment down the line. "We'll have to wait and see," Shapiro said.
2-year undergraduate programs with the biggest annual enrollment decreases
|Program Classification||Fall 2020||Fall 2019||Fall 2018|
|Personal and culinary services||-17.2%||-2.1%||9.1%|
|Communications technologies/technicians and support services||-16.2%||2.6%||0.7%|
|Mechanic and repair technologies/technicians||-15.9%||1.4%||-1.7%|
|Homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting, and related protective services||-14.7%||-4.1%||-3.8%|
|Engineering technologies and engineering-related fields||-14.5%||-2.8%||-3.5%|
|English language and literature/letters||-14.3%||-4.8%||-2.3%|
|Visual and performing arts||-14.2%||0.7%||1.4%|
Note: This list does not include a 37% year-over-year decrease in programs identified as "Basic Skills and Developmental/Remedial Education." It also excludes several program categories enrolling fewer than 5,000 students.
Editor's note: A reference to fall enrollment of spring 2020 high school graduates has been corrected because of an error in data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. You can read more about the change here.