New College Board Report Offers Snapshot Into College Enrollment and Retention

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

As the health and economic impact of the pandemic continues to unfold, higher education is merely at the beginning stages of coming to terms with how the crisis has upended the lives of students.

A new report from the College Board aims to provide a snapshot of how the early days of the pandemic affected college enrollment and retention for the high school classes of 2020 and 2019 respectively, and captured a number of trends to help better inform the sector as to the challenges ahead for future cohorts.

“It’s important to note that the students we’re talking about today really didn't have too much disruption to their learning,” said Jessica Howell, vice president of research at the College Board. “They didn’t have any disruption to testing, they didn’t face widespread changes to admissions practices, all of which are things of course that affected the class of 2021 much more.”

The report found that due to COVID-19, enrollment rates among domestic students who recently graduated from high school declined by 6.1% overall, with smaller declines reported in the four-year sector and larger, more significant declines in the two-year sector.

“That amounts to about 120,000 fewer recent high school graduates enrolling in college right after high school graduation compared to last year,” Howell said.

In the data set collected, the College Board broke down its findings into a number of key takeaways meant to spur conversation over demographics and sector challenges.

While enrollment rate declines were three to four times larger among students in the public two-year sector, as compared to the public four-year sector, “when we start to look under the hood of that top line result, we start to see a new picture of disparate impact,” Howell said.

College enrollment rates among historically disadvantaged groups of recent high school graduates — specifically Black, Hispanic, and Native American students — declined substantially in the public two-year sector, nearly twice as large as the declines seen among Asian and white students. However, those demographic changes were minimally impacted in the four-year sector.

Additionally, retention rates among students attending four-year institutions remained mostly unchanged and were in some instances a little higher than in years prior to the pandemic. Retention rates in the two-year sector, on the other hand, saw a roughly 5% decline.

Another main takeaway was that the combined health and economic crises disrupted the long-standing counter cyclical relationship between college enrollment and economic growth — meaning that the pandemic’s enrollment impact could differ widely from previous recessions.

“We are very much still in this pandemic and we don’t yet have the full story, even as we’re trying to share data that will help us understand what is going on,” Howell said.

Howell said the College Board intends to provide updates to the report once more data on the high school class of 2021 becomes available.


Publication Date: 6/7/2021

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