Colleges continue to lose students in the spring semester, according to early data

Enrollment continues to shrink at U.S. colleges and universities, according to early data published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Following the declines reported in the fall, undergraduate enrollment for the spring semester is once again down 4.5% compared with last year. The early data — which found approximately 6.7 million students had enrolled for the spring semester at roughly 43% of institutions as of February 11 — reveals that community colleges especially, as well as four-year universities, are getting hammered by the pandemic.

“Continued drops in undergraduate enrollment compared to last spring are not surprising given the pandemic continues," Jessica Wood, a higher education analyst at S&P Global Ratings, told Yahoo Finance. "But we are optimistic for fall 2021 given the continued rollout of the vaccine towards herd immunity, which should have a significant positive impact on enrollments.”

Community colleges so far are seeing the biggest losses at 9.5%, versus the previous year when enrollment declined by just 1.3%. Within the sector, two-year colleges based in the city faced much sharper declines of 10.3%, than those in suburban areas, which experienced a 8.1% drop this spring.

Public four-year undergraduate enrollment is also “falling more precipitously” compared to the year before, the report noted, declining by 3.3% compared with a 1.1% drop last spring. That decline has also accelerated since the fall, when enrollment at public four-years declined by just 1.9%.

Data is not available on specific schools due to the center’s arrangements with them. Total bachelor’s degree enrollment has fallen 2.1% this spring, accelerating its decline from the fall (of -1.1%). Associate’s degree enrollment has fallen even more sharply, by 10.5% this spring, following a 9% drop in the fall.

The data also showed a decline across all ages, genders, and ethnicities. International undergraduate student enrollment dropped the most this spring, plummeting by 15.6%, followed by declines in Native American enrollment by 12.5%, white enrollment by 7.7%, and Black enrollment by 7.4% this spring.

Undergraduate enrollment also dropped the most for those aged 18 to 20 this spring, particularly among males.

Geographically, 28 states experienced larger than average declines, the report said, including four states — Alaska, Mississippi, New Mexico, and South Dakota — noting double-digit undergraduate enrollment declines. South Dakota in particular saw a 12.7% drop in enrollment this spring compared with the year before.

“Colleges, high schools, and policymakers will need to work together to help bring learners back into higher education, particularly among disadvantaged groups who are struggling the most during the pandemic and the recession,” Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Schools aren't expecting the declines to become permanent.

"We know the pandemic has had an impact across broad segments of the United States and internationally, especially with the travel limitations," Jay Goff, vice provost of enrollment and student success at George Washington University, told Yahoo Finance. As a research university, the school has been affected by the massive drop in international students. Nonetheless, they "are optimistic for the future and anticipate that most of changes will not be a long-term trend," Goff said.

Enrollment increases at graduate level

But there is a silver lining: Graduate enrollment is looking stronger.

Overall, graduate enrollment is up 4.3%, up from 2.9% in the fall semester. This is largely “fueled by the increase at public four-year institutions,” the report stated. This increase is “nearly three times the pre-pandemic rate,” the authors added.

For-profit colleges have also experienced a rise in both graduate and undergraduate enrollment, both roughly at 4% this spring.

Graduate enrollment increased in 40 states, including Mississippi, which saw undergraduate enrollment numbers fall.

The graduate enrollment numbers of Latinx students increased by 14%, followed by international students by 12.9%, and Black students by 10.8%. All these numbers are higher than the year before.

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.

But there is some help on the way for these colleges. The stimulus package expected to be signed by President Joe Biden on Friday will provide public higher education with $40 billion, as well as $350 billion for state, local, and tribal governments, which "will go a long way toward filling state budget shortfalls" and preventing major cuts to the education sector, the Center for American Progress said.

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

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