College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

College Enrollment Dip Hits Students of Color the Hardest

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 03, 2021 | Corrected: June 04, 2021 3 min read
Conceptual image of blocks moving forward, and one moving backward.

Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted the drop in two-year college enrollment for new graduating seniors in 2020; it was 12 percent, not 12 percentage points.

During the 2020-21 school year, 120,000 fewer new high school graduates entered the nation’s colleges and universities than the year before, according to a new analysis by the College Board.

The pandemic has particularly set back students of color, and seems to have set up significantly different education trends in two- and four-year colleges.

For students heading to four-year, public universities, the pandemic was more of a road bump than a road block—and for some, it was even an opportunity. Public four-year colleges saw an enrollment decline of less than 3 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. At some more selective four-year colleges, enrollment actually increased, because the institutions started to accept more students with lower GPAs after seeing more of the highest-performing high school graduates opting to sit out this year. Likewise, the incoming students at four-year colleges became more likely to stay through their freshman year.

But community colleges and other two-year institutions—which several states have promoted through tuition “promise” programs and similar scholarships—experienced a different story. Overall enrollment in those schools dropped 12 percent among new graduating seniors in 2020 compared to the prior class.

Moreover, the drop in enrollment for most students of color at two-year colleges was several times worse than the decline for such students at four-year colleges. At two-year colleges, for example, Black, Hispanic, and Native Hawaiian students’ enrollment rates dropped by about 15 percent each, while at four-year colleges, the drop in enrollment was only 1.9 percent for Hispanic students and 2.6 percent for Native Hawaiian students. There was no statistically significant change in Black student enrollment at four-year colleges in 2020, compared to the prior year.

“We usually see college enrollment increase during recessions, particularly at community colleges, but not this time,” said Jessica Howell, vice president of research for the College Board and a co-author of the report. “When we start to look under the hood of that top-line result we start to start to see a new picture of disparate impact emerging.”

That’s because community colleges disproportionately serve some of the same students whose communities have also been hit hardest by the pandemic, Howell said. She noted that the two-year college sector typically attracts “many of the subgroups of students who are historically under-resourced or vulnerable or underrepresented in higher ed., or disadvantaged more broadly in terms of educational opportunity—underrepresented minority students, first-generation students, students who live in some of the most educationally disadvantaged neighborhoods and attend some of the highest poverty high schools—and the impact of the pandemic on college enrollment rates is quite clearly most severe among those students.”

Moreover, the College Board found about 5 percent fewer students entering two-year colleges in 2020 returned after their first year, an opposite trend from what was seen in four-year colleges.

Researchers did find that college enrollment was lower in counties with high COVID-19 infection rates—generally those above 15.8 daily cases per 10,000 residents—but again, the effect was strongest for two-year colleges.

College Board researchers analyzed data from more than 3 million graduating high school seniors from each of the 2018, 2019, and 2020 classes. They also accounted in the data for trends in enrollment at different kinds of colleges that had already begun before the pandemic.

Other recent studies have suggested students who graduated in communities hit hardest by the pandemic’s economic downturn also had more competition for financial aid. That could mean the disparities in college enrollment could worsen next year, as separate studies have found the Class of 2021 already falling behind even the prior year in applying for colleges and arranging financial aid.

“It’s important to note that the students we’re talking about [in the class of 2020] really didn’t have too much disruption to their learning,” Howell said. “They didn’t have any disruption to their testing. They didn’t face widespread changes to admissions practices—all of which are things, of course, that affected the class of 2021 much more.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2021 edition of Education Week as College Enrollment Dip Hits Students of Color the Hardest

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