A new report offers early insight into the coronavirus pandemic’s toll on certain institution types and demographic groups, showing a decline in summer college enrollment at two-year, rural, and for-profit colleges—and among Black students across all institution types.
Enrollments dip at institutions serving low-income students
Published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), the report looks at 7 million students enrolled at 2,300 colleges between May and July 2020. Whereas community college enrollment typically increases during a recession as adult learners seek new skills, community colleges this summer experienced a nearly 6 percent decline in enrollment, compared with summer 2019. While saying that it’s too soon to know for certain how the pandemic will shape community college enrollment, NSCRC executive director and report author Doug Shapiro told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he “certainly didn’t think it would go down by this much.”
Enrollment at for-profit, public rural four-year, and private nonprofit rural four-year colleges—all institutions that tend to serve lower-income students, much like community colleges—also were down—by 7 percent, 8 percent, and 5 percent, respectively. “This pandemic has really affected the most vulnerable students, the most disadvantaged students,” Shapiro told The Hechinger Report.
In contrast, the data show a 3 percent increase in summer enrollment at public non-profit four-year colleges, and a 4 percent increase at private nonprofit colleges. Students displaced from summer jobs by the pandemic could have decided to take college classes instead, Shapiro said, adding that “certainly for students who are less economically disadvantaged, that would be a good option for them.”
Sharp drop in Black students’ college attendance
Among racial and ethnic groups, Black students had an especially large 8 percent drop in overall undergraduate program enrollment. And at community colleges, specifically, Black student enrollment fell by 11 percent, compared with summer 2019. The Hechinger Report suggests that the numbers could reflect how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color, who are simultaneously contending with increased economic strain and racial unrest.
Latino student enrollment, meanwhile, increased across almost every institution type except community colleges—a surprise to researchers, who expected that Latino enrollment patterns would be more tightly aligned with those for Black students.
Summer college enrollment among Asian students increased across every institution type. White student summer school enrollment at four-year institutions held steady, but fell by 8 percent at community colleges.
Summer enrollment among male students of all races and ethnicities was down 5.2 percent across undergraduate programs—and down by 14 percent at community colleges. Enrollment among female students declined by less than 1 percent.
Though Shapiro suspects it’s too soon to know whether the summer trends will persist into fall, he told The Hechinger Report that the numbers are “very suggestive that we’re going to see continued gaps in [college] access for disadvantaged students.” The NSCRC plans to release a preliminary report on early fall enrollment at the end of September, offering further insight into the effects of COVID-19 on higher education enrollment.