Report Identifies Worrying Long-Term Enrollment Trends, Particularly for Black Students

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

While enrollment trends this semester look dim due to the ongoing pandemic, multi-year trends paint a far more troubling picture, according to a report from the Center for American Progress.

From the 2014-15 to the 2018-19 academic year, enrollment at institutions of higher education dropped an average of 5 percentage points, equating to more than 1 million students. At public four-year institutions, enrollment dropped by 2.5 percentage points, or 425,000 students. 

For Black undergraduate students at public colleges and universities, the report notes, there has been a decline of 200,000 during that time period, not quite as large as the decreasing overall numbers of Black individuals aged 18 to 24, generally considered the college-aged population for the purpose of this report. Additionally, there was an enrollment decline of 810,000 white students, while the white college-aged population saw even larger declines.

Broken down on the state level plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, 44 states reported a decline in Black student enrollment.

When analyzing the numbers by institution sector, 28 states and Puerto Rico saw an increase in the number of Black students attending four-year colleges over the time period. However, only six states and Puerto Rico had gains in two-year college attendance among Black students. The report makes the distinction that the increases in two-year college attendance were minimal.

And even though a full year of data is not available to track how the pandemic has impacted enrollment, initial figures suggest there has already been a significant decline in Black student enrollment over the summer.

Additionally, in past economic recessions, enrollment in higher education has usually increased. That has not been the case this time around, and paired with years of stagnant state funding of higher education, the report says there is cause for concern.

“Policymakers should be extremely worried about how the combination of a pandemic, an economic recession, and budget cuts will affect students of color — particularly those who are Black,” according to the report.

The report also found that the percentage of white young adults with at least an associate degree is 19 percentage points higher than for young Black adults. Without significant increases in graduation rates, declines in the number of Black students in college will make it hard to shrink their attainment gap, the report notes.

Notably, enrollment among the Hispanic student population at public higher education institutions has increased during the five-year period, well above the relative increase in the 18- to 24-year-old Hispanic population.

However, the report notes policymakers should not take the enrollment growth for granted.

“The disproportionate effects of the virus and economic recessions on individuals of color could threaten enrollment growth or make it harder for more of these students to get through to graduation,” the report states.

To better understand the decline in white college undergraduate enrollment, the report contends states and institutions should “should take a closer look at whether these declines may be greater among some subgroups of white students, such as those who live in rural areas or those who are first-generation students.”

To combat these downward trends, the report recommends the federal government make a significant investment in ensuring students at public and private nonprofit colleges can attend debt-free. Additionally, the report calls on Congress to increase the maximum Pell Grant award — ideally doubling the award from its current level of $6,345.

As for states and institutions, the report recommends they conduct regular “equity audits” to identify policies and procedures that need adjusting.

“An equity audit would provide a top-to-bottom review of colleges’ policies, procedures, and supports, ranging from admissions and recruitment to career services and graduation,” the report notes. “The goal here is to identify missing supports as well as practices that may have unintended negative effects on certain groups of students.”

The report also recommends quantitative and qualitative work be conducted to better understand the enrollment decline among Black students.

“This should start by using data to understand if there are clear patterns tied to Black students no longer attending, such as those related to a certain age range or students coming from a specific area,” the report suggests. “These findings should then guide qualitative work that involves speaking with current and former students, as well as with members of the local community, to determine if there are cultural issues on campus or other college-related factors, which may not be immediately visible, that are affecting enrollment.”


Publication Date: 10/22/2020

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