Fewer undergrads enrolled at community colleges this summer: report

Dive Brief: 

  • While summer undergraduate enrollment ticked up at public and nonprofit four-year colleges from a year ago, it fell at community colleges and four-year for-profit institutions, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

  • Fewer students were also pursuing associate and undergraduate certificates this summer than in 2019, while more were enrolling in graduate and bachelor’s programs. 

  • The report offers a glimpse at how the coronavirus pandemic affected summer enrollment, though it’s too soon to tell how fall numbers will be impacted. 

Dive Insight: 

Enrollment rose at community colleges and for-profit institutions during the Great Recession. Those types of schools are “where adult students typically find the accessible programs that best meet their needs when they’re weathering an economic storm,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse’s research arm. 

But the current crisis is different from previous economic downturns, with the pandemic shutting down or severely limiting entire sectors. “There’s so much that was unexpected in this report,” Shapiro said. 

For one, the report found that summer undergraduate enrollment declined 5.6% year-over-year at public two-year colleges and 7% at four-year, for-profit institutions. Meanwhile, undergraduate enrollment at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges rose by 2.8% and 4%, respectively. 

Natalie Schwartz/Education Dive, data courtesy of National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


The report found vast enrollment differences by demographic groups. Summer enrollment of Black students, for example, declined by 6.1%, compared to a 2.1% drop in 2019. White students’ enrollment fell by 2.3% in summer 2020, though that’s up from a 3.6% decrease last year. And enrollment of Asian and Hispanic students increased by 8.5% and 3.3%, respectively. 

Although several news media reports speculated that community colleges’ enrollment could rise in the fall as students seek out less expensive higher education options, these schools only saw increases to their Asian and dual-enrollment students this summer. Enrollment fell across all other groups based on race and ethnicity, age, gender and location. 

Black students saw the largest percentage decrease, with their enrollment falling by nearly 11% at public two-year schools. Although it was beyond the scope of the Clearinghouse report to explore why these shifts occurred, the pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color. 

Black and Hispanic people are much more likely to catch the coronavirus than White people, according to data cited by the New York Times in July. The coronavirus is more than twice as likely to kill Black people than White and Asian people, according to one effort to track such data. Moreover, workers of color have seen especially large job losses since the coronavirus took root in the U.S., ProPublica reported in July. 

Natalie Schwartz/Education Dive, data courtesy of National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


Overall, graduate summer enrollment increased by 3.8%, compared to a 0.4% rise last year. Education consultancy EAB projected in a recent report that the pandemic will bring in more graduate students, which will help colleges offset declines in undergraduate students. 

However, the pandemic could thwart some students’ plans. In a survey of more than 1,000 people, most of whom were current and prospective students of undergraduate and graduate programs, EAB found that many adult students who had planned to return to college may hold off because they lack the ability to finance their education.

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