Freshman enrollment has dropped more than 16 percent from last year at American colleges and universities — and by nearly a quarter at community colleges — as the threat of the coronavirus has disrupted the nation’s higher education system, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported Thursday.
A month into the fall semester, overall undergraduate enrollment is running 4 percent below last year’s levels, as the pandemic has forced classes online and plunged the national economy into turmoil, the report found. Even an upward trend in graduate enrollment has been dampened since last month’s survey, slipping to 2.7 percent.
The drop in enrollment is just the latest turmoil affecting America’s institutions of higher education. Facing an uncertain autumn, some schools opted to hold most or all classes online, while others opted for in-person instruction, installing a host of measures to try to contain the virus, with mixed success.
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 178,000 virus cases have been reported at more than 1,400 colleges as of Oct. 8, according to a Times database. So far, 29 games in the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s premier tier, have been postponed or rescheduled for virus-related reasons, and one of college sport’s biggest names, Alabama Coach Nick Saban, announced he had tested positive on Wednesday.
Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, said the trend reflected enrollment numbers from a little more than half of the 3,600 postsecondary institutions tracked by the center, sharpening the worrisome picture that emerged last month in early data.
That preliminary look in September, with only about a quarter of schools reporting, had pegged the fall in enrollment at only about 2.5 percent. A third, even more complete data set will be released Nov. 12.
“Most strikingly, freshman students are by far the biggest decline of any group from last year,” Mr. Shapiro said, noting that many students may have opted for gap years or deferred admissions or decided to work for a year before enrolling.
Undergraduate enrollment, he said, was down in every region and at every type of institution except four-year, for-profit colleges, with first-time students accounting for 69 percent of the drop.
But the “staggering” news, he said, was from community colleges, where the 22.7 percent enrollment decline from last year eliminated what had been “one of higher education’s bright spots.” In the 2008, recession, he said, community college enrollment went up.
“This is uncharted territory,” agreed Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education, a higher education trade group. And, he said, the societal stakes are high: the community college system is where most Black, Latino and low-income students enter the higher education system.
Members of those groups all have been disproportionately hit by the virus, and he said the drop also may reflect concern that campuses aren’t safe from infection.
“But the big worry is that people who interrupt their education with the intention of completing it later don’t always do so,” he said. “The progress we’ve made in expanding education to lower income students could be undermined.”