How COVID-19 is Fueling the College Enrollment Decline

by Alice Anne Bailey | October 5, 2020
How COVID-19 is Fueling the College Enrollment Decline

Part two of a three-part blog series that highlights how to retain students in the COVID-19 era. View part one here and part three here.

How COVID-19 is Fueling the College Enrollment Decline

In our first Student Retention Guidebook, we covered demographic changes that we've seen change in higher ed over the past 20 years – before COVID caused a college enrollment decline. For instance, there are certain groups of students—particularly Hispanics—who were driving the majority of enrollment growth in higher education.

In early 2020, there were more students of color and working adult learners enrolling in college than ever in history. Likewise, more low-income students and “first-gens” were taking college classes than ever before. However, these student groups have been the hardest hit by COVID-19, thus wiping out decades of progress.

The college enrollment decline of Fall 2020

Fall 2020 enrollment numbers show a college enrollment decline across the board, although the steepest declines are among students of color, rural white students, first-gens, and students from the lowest-income brackets.

This is according to a new survey from the U.S. Census, which showed these statistics:

  • Enrollment among Black students has declined by 34%.
  • Hispanic/Latinx students are enrolling less by 32%.
  • Enrollment among first-gen students declined by 35%.

Table 1: Households That Cancelled Plans for the Fall Semester of Higher Education, by Demographic Characteristics

college enrollment decline
Source: McCann, C. (2020, September 18). New federal survey data show the pandemic has hit would-college students hard. New America analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Plus Survey.

Even before the pandemic, low-income students were most at-risk of dropping out. This is because it was difficult for them to bridge the gap between what Pell grants could cover and tuition, books, and living expenses. They were also more likely to work while enrolled. In turn, this decreased the time they had available to study and complete assignments.

The pandemic has caused drastic changes in family finances due to job loss. As a result, this makes paying for tuition more unrealistic for many.

For instance, when asked what their reasons for not enrolling this fall were, would-be students reported the following issues:

  • Inability to pay tuition due to family income changes: 70%
  • Loss of childcare: 63%
  • Changes in institutional financial aid package: 51%
  • Fear of getting sick from the virus: 50%

Moreover, students from families who earn $75,000 or less are twice as likely to have canceled their enrollment plans for the fall when compared to students in households that earn more than $100,000.

Furthermore, colleges aren't able to offer the same level of financial aid that they could have before COVID because of the economic downturn. This makes students' financial situation even more difficult.

COVID impacts specific student groups more severely

In general, Black households have been the most likely to suffer job loss and financial setbacks from the pandemic. At the same time, Black and Hispanic communities are the most likely to become sick. In fact, Blacks and Hispanics are four-and-a-half times more likely to be hospitalized by COVID than Whites.

With this said, illnesses further exasperate financial setbacks. This is because when an adult becomes ill or lives with someone who does, they must forego working in-person for at least two weeks. Not only does this prevent them from earning an income during that time, but it also makes them more vulnerable to being laid off.

Students are taking time off from school to work

The majority of non-returning students are taking time off to work, thus contributing to the college enrollment decline. However, there's a quality difference between a gap year spent interning or learning about a subject of interest – which is typically experienced by high-income students – and a gap year that low-income students may engage in.

Before the pandemic, half of working students were employed in minimum-wage jobs that offered flexible schedules. However, these jobs didn't pay well nor did they prepare these students for a future career. These jobs were mostly in the retail and restaurant industry—two of the hardest-hit sectors.

Furthermore, formal, programmatic gap years have a definitive end date. However, merely taking time off college to earn a paycheck does not.

For instance, research shows that low-income students who take time off from college are the least likely to return. Their chances of returning to school further decrease with each semester missed. In fact, only 13% of students who drop out ever return to college, and if they do, very few graduate.

In other words, for many students, a gap year can lead to forgoing college altogether.

Some students aren't equipped to learn online

During the 2020 spring semester, roughly 20% of all students didn't have access to the technology required for online learning. This includes laptops, home computers, and/or high-speed Internet.

What makes this situation even more dire is that 23% of students experienced hardware or software problems that were significant enough to prevent them from participating in a course. All of these issues occurred more predominantly among Black and Hispanic students than White students.

Table 2: Percent of Students Experiencing Problems as “Major,” by Race and Ethnicity

college enrollment decline
Source: Means, B., & Neisler, J. (2020). Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Digital Promise.

Many low-income students don't arrive to campus on equal footing with their high-income peers. Due to inequities in our public school system, they're less likely to be sufficiently prepared to fully succeed in postsecondary-level work, particularly technology-mediated instruction.

Research consistently finds that the achievement gap between Black and Hispanic students and White students is much greater in the online environment than a traditional classroom. Students from poorer performing high schools are more likely to struggle with managing time and advocating for their own learning needs.

Furthermore, first-gens lack “cultural capital,” such as knowledge of common postsecondary lingo and how to navigate campus bureaucracy--knowledge that gives high-income students an advantage in being successful.

If these issues aren't addressed, they could further exacerbate the college enrollment decline.

What you can do to better support low-income and first-gen students

Consider offering training to all first-year students that helps them develop the skills and techniques for being a successful online learner.

  • Help them to imagine how good it'll feel to have an assignment completed. You can also encourage them to reflect on their reasons for enrolling in higher education in the first place.
  • Let students know that technology-mediated learning is hard for everyone, especially because of technical glitches and less guidance from professors. 
  • Help students plan and devote a specified time to online learning every day.
  • Help students understand that faculty are willing to provide help and that the most successful learners actively seek help by reaching out to professors when needed.
  • Be sure to include “understanding college culture” into the curriculum.

Without being able to communicate face-to-face with advisers, support staff, and faculty, it's easy for students to fall through the cracks. With this said, all support services need to be made available for remote students while also keeping the digital divide in mind.

Here are a few things that you can do at your school to keep students engaged 

  • Use texting to raise awareness of the availability of services, where to find them, and encourage students to make use of them. In particular, make sure students know about food pantries, housing assistance, and financial supports such as emergency grants. You can also text students to follow up and make sure they're getting the help they need.
  • Be flexible with deadlines and course requirements. Right now, students may not have a safe place to live and may be food insecure. They may also be concerned about their families’ physical well-being. They may lack access to or have to share technology. Many are caring for family members.
  • Understand that students might be ashamed to discuss their home life when explaining why they cannot complete assignments. This includes understanding that students might need extensions for making payments or turning in classwork. 
  • Make sure that classes can be accessed by all students, even if they're working from their phones at a local fast-food restaurant that offer free wifi. Be sure to offer as many different ways that students can communicate with faculty and staff as well as to turn in forms and assignments.

Learn more

With specific engagement and outreach strategies, you can help students realize that they have what it takes to weather school amidst COVID, which can lower dropout rates. For more COVID-specific strategies to combat the college enrollment decline, download our Student Retention Guidebook 2.0.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant and Adjunct Faculty Member at American University. For a list of references used for this blog, click here.

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