New Report Examines Impact of Covid-19 on Fall 2020 College Enrollment and Retention

Today, College Board Research released an extensive report examining the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on enrollment and retention rates for recent high school graduates. The report, College Enrollment and Retention in the Era of Covid, looks at college enrollment rates for students who graduated high school in 2020, and college retention patterns for students who graduated high school in 2019. The results are based on a sample of nearly 10 million students who attended more than 22,000 U.S. high schools and 2,800 U.S. colleges, drawing on data from College Board and the National Student Clearinghouse.

Five themes emerged, showing some unexpected and substantial impacts of the pandemic on student’s college enrollment and retention rates.

  1. While college enrollment rates declined overall, students’ enrollment rates at two-year colleges declined much more substantially than their enrollment rates at four-year colleges (Figure 3). The four-year sector saw the largest enrollment rate declines occur among more affluent White and Asian students with strong grades and college-educated parents. Meanwhile, for students from historically disadvantaged groups – including those who attend higher-poverty high schools, live in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, first-generation students, and underrepresented minority students – enrollment rates declined only slightly at four-year colleges. The enrollment story for the class of 2020 is quite different among students in the two-year sector, where the pandemic disrupted the college trajectories of first-generation, underrepresented minority, and students with lower grades from higher-poverty communities and high schools (Figures 4 - 7, 9).
  2. Students with lower high school grades (i.e., B/B- and lower) enrolled at higher rates than the previous admissions cycle at four-year colleges (Figures 9, 18). Enrollment rate declines among more affluent students with higher grades (i.e., A/A+) may help explain another trend revealed by the data. Previous survey data showed students in the high school class of 2020 were more likely to take a gap year and defer enrollment until the fall of 2021 (students cited remote classes and lack of on-campus amenities during the pandemic as driving these decisions). This likely allowed colleges to lean on their wait lists to fill open seats and enroll students with slightly weaker academic credentials.
  3. Retention rates are mostly unchanged among students in the four-year sector, while students enrolled in public two-year institutions experienced a 5% decline in first-year retention rates (Figure 21). Academic momentum between the first and second year of college is an indicator of eventual degree completion, so retention is an important early measure of the long-term consequences of the pandemic.
  4. There is a lot of variation in the impact of the pandemic on enrollment and retention rates, but that variation does not appear linked to covid-19 case rates or local unemployment rates (Figures 12, 13, 30, 31). Four-year college enrollment rates decreased by more than 10% among students in nine states and increased among students in 11 other states (Figures 10, 38). More research is needed to understand the cause of these geographic variations.
  5. The pandemic has fundamentally disrupted the long-standing relationship between college enrollment and economic growth. In a weak labor market, we typically see an uptick in college enrollment as workers invest in new skills and wait out the recession. Community colleges historically experience the largest of these increases related to economic downturns—students tend to select more affordable postsecondary options in times of crisis. This was not the case during the pandemic. In fact, two-year colleges across the country saw the largest enrollment rate decreases among recent high school graduates (Figure 14). This is true across all groups of students despite survey results for the class of 2020 showing a strong preference for more affordable college options.

The pandemic's full impact on higher education remains an ongoing conversation. More research is needed to fully understand these enrollment and retention results and whether we can expect to see similar patterns among future graduating classes. The pandemic’s long-term consequences for college completion, new and innovative instructional models, and changes in the higher education landscape are all topics that require further exploration.