The pandemic’s impact on higher education is expected to linger. Potentially lower enrollment levels this year could play a role, but colleges aren’t experiencing that trend equally. 

For instance, while fewer students overall than a year ago went to public and private nonprofit colleges this fall, for-profits’ enrollment is growing. Primarily online institutions also reported gains.

The following charts illustrate how enrollment levels are shaping up and the potential impact of that trend on tuition revenue. Note, some of the data is still preliminary, so we’ll have a clearer picture as more colleges report their numbers. 


Community college enrollment appears to be taking a hit this fall, despite predictions that another recession would send people back to school like it did last time. Some research on the impact of the Great Recession on college enrollment shows steeper gains a year or two after its onset, though enrollment still grew during that time.

While overall undergraduate enrollment fell 4%, public two-year schools saw more than double that decline, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The data covers 54% of roughly 3,600 colleges.

Graduate enrollment followed a different pattern, up 2.7% overall. Private four-year, for-profit colleges led in that sector with a 9.3% annual gain.

And more undergraduates at private nonprofit and for-profit four-year colleges are going part-time this fall, with increases of 4.1% and 9.4%, respectively.



Enrollment trends this fall also vary somewhat by student demographic. While all undergraduate student groups saw a decrease in their numbers year-over-year, the drop was the most significant for American Indian/Native Alaskan students, according to the preliminary Clearinghouse data. 

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color. People who are Black, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander are dying as a result of the virus at higher rates than White and Asian people, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project. Black and Latino households also are more vulnerable to housing and food insecurity during the pandemic.



A decrease in first-time college students across most of the sector surprised Clearinghouse officials, they told reporters on a conference call last month. The drop-off was most significant at community colleges, which reported large decreases in overall enrollment. For-profit colleges, meanwhile, saw modest gains in enrollment of first-time students. As more colleges report to the Clearinghouse, we’ll have a better idea of enrollment trends among this critical group of students.



Primarily online colleges are another subset whose fall enrollment patterns deviate from the sectorwide trend. The Clearinghouse defines those schools as having more than 90% of students enrolled entirely online pre-pandemic. Of the 20 such institutions included in the Clearinghouse’s report, most were four-year, for-profit colleges.

The pandemic has been a marketing hook for some colleges with large online footprints, including but not limited to for-profits, according to a recent analysis of marketing behavior by left-aligned think tank The Century Foundation. “Schools from all sectors are getting mileage out of referencing ‘uncertain times’ months into the health and economic crisis,” the report notes.



Data in so far shows the sector might buck another prediction: That the pandemic would push students at four-year schools to transfer to two-year colleges. Rather, transfers rose 2.6% year-over-year in the opposite direction: from community colleges to four-year schools, according to the Clearinghouse. 

Meanwhile, transfers sank between the same level of school and from four-years to community colleges. And students who left school without finishing a credential before the pandemic started were less likely to have come back this fall. Fewer than half of those who returned transferred.


College Board: Trends in College Pricing report 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 


New data from the College Board found that tuition price growth slowed at public and private nonprofit schools this year before adjusting for inflation. The data comes after many schools reported cutting tuition or forgoing planned increases ahead of this academic year. The average tuition and fees for public four-year in-state students did not increase in 10 states before adjusting for inflation, per the College Board, and for in-district community college students in 14 states.



Enrollment declines have likely impacted tuition and fee revenue. Of nearly 300 college presidents surveyed in September by the American Council on Education, around four in 10 leaders of four-year colleges said tuition revenue decreased this fall. Just under half said income from fees fell. Many schools forfeited income from student housing and other auxiliary revenue sources by keeping campuses closed this term.

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