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U.S. colleges saw fewer undergrads enroll this fall, amid COVID-19

American colleges and universities saw a 2.5% decline in undergraduate enrollment this fall compared with last year, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The data, which looked at 3.6 million students at 629 colleges — roughly 22% of institutions in the U.S. — for the fall semester reveals that all colleges, private and public, were hit by the declines.

“I don’t think the declines in enrollment are surprising,” Jessica Wood, a higher education analyst at S&P Global Ratings, told Yahoo Finance. “Leading up to the fall, we’ve seen enrollment declines across the sector already, and when you factor in COVID, a lot of students are choosing maybe to defer enrollment, or make different choices.”

The biggest losses were felt at community colleges, where enrollment was down by 7.5% compared to the year before, followed by private nonprofit 4-year colleges, down 3.8%, and public four-year colleges down 0.5%.


Data on specific schools is not available due to the center’s agreements with them.

The data also revealed declines across all racial groups. Enrollment of American Indian/Alaska Native students declined by 7.7%; white and Black students’ enrollment fell by 6.3% each; and international enrollments in undergrad programs plummeted by 11.2%. The latter figure is likely because of visa restrictions enacted by the Trump administration.

(GRAPHIC: National Student Clearinghouse)
(GRAPHIC: National Student Clearinghouse)

But there were some geographic disparities: Within four-year colleges, city schools are “faring far better than suburban and rural public four-year colleges,” according to the report.

More broadly, out of the 26 states that were represented in the data, many like Nevada, Pennsylvania and Illinois, reported steep losses in enrollment. Nevada in particular saw a decline of 11% in enrollment overall as compared to the year before.

Yet, amid the pandemic, students are interested in part-time online degrees: Enrollment at institutions that are “primarily online” were up 18.6% for Hispanic students, and 17% for Asian students; but overall, undergrads at primary online full-time programs declined by 5.6%.

Graduate student enrollment was up 3.9% year-over-year. For-profit schools in particular saw a 9.1% increase in enrollment, followed by public 4-year colleges, and private nonprofit 4-year schools.

CHESTNUT HILL , MA. -  SEPTEMBER 14:  Mask wearing students at the Boston College Campus on September 14, 2020 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.   (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
Mask wearing students at the Boston College Campus on September 14, 2020 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (PHOTO: Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

It’s worth noting that in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, many colleges have resorted to offering online-only programs — more than 1,300, according to Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative — which puts them on the same footing as online colleges.

And while the surge in for-profit enrollment was somewhat expected, given their past performance after the Great Recession, the scale of the increase was surprising, Wood said.

But many traditional colleges are beefing up their online presence, as they anticipate this trend to accelerate.

For instance, the University of Arizona struck a deal with Zovio Inc. to acquire assets of for-profit Ashford University to run an online school called the University of Arizona Global Campus.

Similarly, the University of Massachusetts system said in June it was partnering with private nonprofit Brandman University to accelerate growth online.

Enrollment numbers matter to colleges for multiple reasons: They derive revenue from tuition, from state funding, federal funding such as from the CARES Act, among others.

“At the end of the day, students are really the reason colleges and universities are in existence,” said Wood. “It's two-fold — [enrollments are] the reason the institutions are in place and it speaks to their longterm viability, but then second, it’s the financial impact.”

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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