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College freshman enrollment plummets in the midst of the pandemic

Oct. 15, 2020
Figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show a 16.1% drop in first-year students compared with the previous year.

Freshman enrollment has dropped more than 16% from last year at American colleges and universities — and by nearly a quarter at community colleges, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says.

The New York Times reports that figures from a month into the fall semester show overall undergraduate enrollment is running 4% below last year’s levels, as the Covid-19 pandemic has forced classes online and disrupted the economy.

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 New York Times database. 

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, says the trend reflects 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.

The September numbers, with only about a quarter of schools reporting, showed a drop in enrollment of only about 2.5%.

“Most strikingly, freshman students are by far the biggest decline of any group from last year,” Shapiro says.

The 16.1% drop in fall 2020 enrollment for freshmen compares with a 0.4% drop in fall 2019 freshman enrollment.

Many students may have opted for gap years or deferred admissions or decided to work for a year before enrolling, Shapiro says.

Undergraduate enrollment, he says, is down in every region and at every type of institution except four-year, for-profit colleges.

But the “staggering” news, he says, is from community colleges, where the 22.7% enrollment decline from last year eliminated what had been “one of higher education’s bright spots.”

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