The University Network

How Was Spring Semester Enrollment Impacted By COVID?

Coronavirus-induced disruptions to the spring semester did not cause an unusual amount of college students to change their enrollment status, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Even after campus shutdowns, the number of students who withdrew from college or changed their enrollment status from full-time to part-time were mostly consistent with prior years, according to the report. Overall, this remained the case regardless of student demographics and institution types, including minority-serving institutions, rural or urban institutions, or high transfer or highly vocational community colleges. 

“Little or no change in enrollment status is a reassuring sign that most college students were able to stay on course during the first two months of the pandemic,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse Center, said in a news release

“However, there were early signs of broader impacts that are underway,” he added. “Data reveals the emergence of small but concerning racial and ethnic patterns, as more students took leaves of absence than in pre-pandemic years, particularly African Americans and Hispanics.”

Leaves of absence, where students don’t have to attend class for a set amount of time, have been — and still are — uncommon. But amid the pandemic, particularly in March and April, they became more common. 

In 2018 and 2019, .026 percent of all college students took a leave of absence. This number nearly doubled to .045 percent in 2020. The number of Black and Hispanic students who took leaves of absence saw a 2020 increase of 206 percent and 287 percent, respectively, compared to white and Asian American students who saw respective increases of 70 percent and 59 percent. 

The report also notes that, while rates of reduced enrollment — students switching from full-time to part-time — was relatively consistent with pre-pandemic numbers, students who reduced their enrollment intensity were more likely to do so later in the term, after the campus shutdowns. 

In 2018 and 2019, March was the most common month for students at public four-year institutions to reduce their enrollment intensity, according to the report. In 2020, that shifted to April.

What’s more concerning, though, is that rates of new enrollments in April 2020 were far below what they have been in years past. In 2018 and 2019, approximately 90,000 new enrollments were reported with a start date in April, according to the report. This year, that number dramatically dropped to only 17,000. 

“Particularly this year, following the massive layoffs announced in March, newly unemployed adults may have been expected to flock to for-profit institutions with flexible or monthly terms, such as primarily online institutions,” the report states. “However, across all institutions, even at primarily online institutions, there was no sign of significant new enrollment growth during the course of the spring term in 2020. Rather, data shows far fewer new enrollments reported in April 2020 than in April of previous years.” 

It still largely remains unclear, though, what enrollment will look like in the fall. It’s one thing for students to complete a semester that had been unexpectedly impacted by a novel coronavirus. It’s another to start a new semester in the midst of a pandemic. 

Some students have been forced into food and housing insecurity by COVID-19 and can no longer afford their education. Others have lost family members to the virus, forcing them to stay home and provide for their families. 

And while colleges mull over whether or not to bring students back to campus in the fall, some students may feel uncomfortable going back to school with COVID-19 cases rising around the United States. And if their schools opt to conduct classes completely online and don’t lower their tuition prices, students may choose to take a gap year.