Low-income students dominate pandemic's college enrollment decline

(Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty Images)

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New data published Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse confirms recent reports that the pandemic is hitting low-income communities hardest and that fewer students are enrolling in college straight out of high school. 

Researchers found an unprecedented 6.8% decline last fall in the number of students enrolling in college or university straight out of high school. Drawing on data of about 860,000 graduates from about 3,500 high schools, the group found that graduates from low-income, high-poverty and high-minority high schools were most affected. The pandemic was found to have virtually no effect on the rates of high-income high school graduate enrollment at public four-year institutions, which are also down about 2%.

Both urban and rural schools were found to have roughly equal rates of decline, with more dramatic changes than their suburban counterparts.

“These findings further illustrate how the pandemic has reduced access to postsecondary education, particularly for students seeking more affordable options in the public sector,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the group’s research center, said in a press release.

The new analysis updates the group’s existing research on higher education enrollment decline with a specific focus on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting enrollment. While the 6.8% decline is more than four times greater than the straight-out-of-high-school decrease seen before the pandemic began, it’s also much less than the dire 21.7% decline the Clearinghouse estimated last December.

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