Higher ed enrollment picture becomes clearer: first-time students drop dramatically, community colleges see steep enrollment decline

October 22, 2020
By: Ellen Marrison

First-time beginning students looking to pursue post-secondary education tumbled this fall, showing a 16.1 percent decrease nationally when compared with last year’s figures, according to recently released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That decline was even worse at community colleges, down 22.7 percent compared to a 1.4 percent increase the previous year. All told, undergraduate enrollment is down 4.0 percent compared to the same time last year, while graduate enrollment saw a 2.7 percent increase, amounting to an overall college enrollment decrease of 3.0 percent as of Sept. 24.

The decrease in enrollment continues a trend that was already evident prior to the pandemic in the U.S. The more surprising development may have been the drop in enrollment at the community college level, which typically increases during a recession. Similar patterns were evident in survey of enrollment managers and registrars by The Chronicle of Higher Education, which found that more than half of the two-year colleges reported that enrollments dropped by 10 percent or more.

A story last month in the Washington Post noted that many community colleges serve students who have suffered job losses and can no longer afford to take classes, may be struggling to care for children who are home because of the pandemic, and may also face a lack of reliable broadband when courses are virtual. And a story this week in USA Today details how the pandemic’s impact on community college students, many who are older and balancing full time work and families along with classes, could exacerbate race-  and class-based gaps in college achievement.

The falling enrollment numbers could also mean already struggling institutions will face an even greater battle. The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities president, Mark Ojakian, told the governor this month that the state system is in a budget crisis and in need of a $69 million bailout. The state Board of Regents voted last week to use nearly half of the community college’s reserves, which is projected to cover just 3 percent of the system’s annual operating costs. In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill to provide bridge funding for the Vermont State Colleges System, which prevented the closure of Northern Vermont University campuses at Lyndon, Johnson and the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph, which have been facing financial difficulties that have been worsened by the pandemic. And in New York, a coalition representing higher ed institutions across the state delivered a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators asking for increased revenue and to strengthen financial aid and opportunity programs.

As states continue to face budget burdens and falling revenues and look for ways to cut, higher education stands in the crosshairs. Next week the Digest will feature a story on how scholarship and opportunity programs are faring.

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