The Impact of the Pandemic on College Enrollment


By Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D.

Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness


When the coronavirus pandemic began pummeling the United States in the early parts of 2020 its impact could be felt immediately. As the Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness™, a program out of the University of Minnesota that aims to increase and diversify those who graduate with a degree or credential across the country, I worried about how Covid-19 would affect high school students getting ready for and going to college. With recent college enrollment data emerging, there is now a clearer image and it is pretty grim.

The National Student Clearinghouse is a nonprofit and nongovernmental organization that provides educational reporting, data exchange, verification, and research services. Their stated mission is to “serve the education and workforce communities and all learners with access to trusted data, related services, and insights.” The role of the research arm of the organization is to “work with higher education institutions, states, districts, high schools, and educational organizations to better inform practitioners and policymakers about student educational pathways and enable informed decision making.”

A recent National Student Data Clearinghouse publication offers a portrait of current enrollment trends including the following:

  • Overall postsecondary enrollment dropped by 2.5% in the fall of 2020--which is two times the enrollment decline the year before. Undergrad enrollment, particularly at two-year colleges, was the biggest driver of the drop. 
  • Freshman enrollment in college dropped 13.1%, which equates to about 327,500 students from last fall.
  • Individual state data differs quite a bit. In Minnesota, the home of Ramp-Up to Readiness, fall enrollment dropped slightly, by .5%. Other states’ data is available in the full report.

Doug Shapiro, who leads the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse was interviewed about the enrollment trends by NPR. Shapiro said, “That's a lot of individuals whose lives are on hold, whose career and educational aspirations are suspended. You can almost think of this as an entire generation that will enter adulthood with lower education, lower skills, less employability, ultimately lower productivity."

The National Student Clearinghouse, in addition, also reported data regarding the impact Covid-19 has had on high school graduates. Key findings from that report include:

  • There was little impact on high school graduation rates in 2019-2020.
  • Far fewer high school grads enrolled immediately in college this fall. The decline was a whopping 21.7% over enrollment numbers in 2019.
  • Immediate college enrollment rates were substantially decreased for high poverty, low income, and urban high schools. Details are indicated in the table below.

Clearly, these numbers are cause for great concern. I reached out to my colleague, Kenzie Drexler, to help me process the new data. I asked Ms. Drexler, who is the Coordinator for Multicultural Outreach and Community Partnerships here at the University of Minnesota, what she thought of the enrollment data and what she would want high school students to know. She said, “It is hard to think about your future as a high school student and the pandemic has amplified this struggle. I think it's important to reframe and remember that this is temporary. We may never go back to what we once knew as normal, but life will go on and because of that it is important to still keep goal setting and planning for your future.”

I also asked Ms. Drexler for advice for students, particularly from low income families, who worry about how to pay for college. She stated, “Finances have always been an area of concern, but now more than ever it is important to tap into financial resources on and off campus. Work with the financial aid office at your schools of interest to see if there is need-based aid or if there are scholarships you qualify for. Also, look for external scholarships.” In particular, Ms. Drexler recommended FastWeb and CollegeBoard as safe, reputable places to apply for a variety of scholarships to help lighten the financial stressors of going to college. 

I reached out, additionally, to Michelle Mazanec, the College and Career Specialist at Osseo High School in Minnesota who facilitates the Ramp-Up program there, for her reaction to the new college enrollment data. She said “Many of the students I’m working with feel stuck. They are doing all they can to keep up with school and many of them are working longer hours than they would be if we were learning face-to-face. They want to go to college, but without in-person direction and someone to answer questions, the number of students successfully navigating the college admissions process has fallen.” 

Moreover, Ms. Mazanec reported that she is seeing a key indicator that the enrollment slide at her school is not done. “We’ve seen a sharp decrease in the number of transcripts ordered (by this point in the school year, the class of 2020 had requested over 2,000 transcripts; the class of 2021 has requested 1,143) which is an indication of the number of students who are putting the college admissions process on hold.”  Ms. Mazanec added that “the world feels like it’s moving in slow motion, but it’s not, so deadlines are passing and opportunities are being missed.”

On top of that, Ms. Mazanec relayed that more of her students are contemplating a gap year or putting college on hold altogether because they are unsure what college will look like in the fall.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been cruel, punishing, and unfair in so many ways. Amongst all the terrible, jolting loss of life, losing the opportunity to go to college has been yet another type of casualty during this tumultuous time. In order to stem the tide of enrollment decline, we need to make sure all of our students understand the value of a college degree, know how to prepare for postsecondary, and be aware of the varied financial aid options available for those who need it.


About the Author
Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D., is the Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness at the University of Minnesota, and is thoroughly committed to college for all. Her additional professional interests include high quality instruction, professional learning systems, and labor trends. She is also a licensed social studies teacher, and has worked in K-12 settings, leading efforts in curriculum and instruction, mentoring/coaching, alternative compensation, and postsecondary readiness.

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