Logo for MindWires COVID Transitions podcast

In this episode, Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman, and Kevin Kelly discuss National Student Clearinghouse data on Fall 2020 higher education enrollment. It’s not pretty.


  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman
  • Kevin Kelly



Phil: Welcome to COVID Transitions, where we discuss higher education as we deal with the pandemic and look what it’s doing with our enrollment and operations. In particular, now that we’re deep into the fall, we want to purposely go beyond just saying what’s going to happen and start looking at real results of the fall and also start looking ahead to what this means for the spring term and beyond. I’m here, as usual, with Kevin Kelly and Jeanette Wiseman. It’s great to talk to both of you.

Kevin: Hello.

Jeanette: Good morning.

Phil: To set up the discussion, I had written a blog post. It was looking at the National Student Clearinghouse data. Essentially, they put out a second look at the enrollment in the fall 2020 for U.S. higher education. On one hand, it’s slightly worse than the first estimate.

Now that we have more data in, the total undergraduate enrollment looks to be down four percent compared to a year ago, [00:01:00] which is not the greatest. That headline sort of hides some very troubling data that we wanted to discuss today and some significance that we need to think about. In particular, I’ll call out two just to get started.

The big one is that first time student enrollment is down 16 percent across the board, and for community colleges, it’s down 23 percent. At the same time, community college enrollment overall is down nine point four percent compared to a year prior. They were already worse than before, but now it looks to be much worse. In particular, first time student change has got to have some major repercussions going forward. We’ll get started with that, but there are definitely other observations we want to add in.

Let’s just start with this. How concerned should higher education institutions [00:02:00] be, particularly around the first time student drop and the community college enrollment drops? Kevin, how concerned are you?

Kevin: Well, I think that the person you quoted from Inside Higher Ed, the community college dean, gets it right. He talks it’s more about affordability, underlying income and wealth than it is about the tuition. I think the lower the tuition, especially the City College of San Francisco is seeing that even free tuition, is still not really enough because those people who are possibly needing to work or having challenges or other priorities they need to focus on. It’s a function of things more than tuition. I think he gets it right.

Phil: Just to add to this from a data perspective, because at the same time that the low cost community college has gone down even more, the for-profit enrollments have gone up and [00:03:00] private non-profit. Basically some of the more expensive options have actually increased somewhat. Jeanette, same question for you. Are you surprised? Are you concerned? How do you look at this drop?

Jeanette: I was a little bit surprised because I thought that people would choose to do a community college. You quoted Stephanie Moore, how she decided that her son was going to go to a local community college and then move over into a traditional four year for his sophomore year. I was thinking people would choose that option, be closer to home and do that. I thought that there was going to be an increase in numbers for at least the community colleges and the local state schools. That was a little bit of a surprise. I think your quote about what Kevin just said, that it’s an overall reflection of wealth and where a lot of the people who traditionally go to those schools are right now. That’s incredibly concerning.

I think that across the [00:04:00] board you’re seeing just what this pandemic has done for people in terms of income and wealth. People that are really struggling not only in higher education, but you’re seeing the haves and have nots in the K-12 space, in terms of the type of education they’re being offered right now. You can go everywhere to health care and things, where the higher ed space has just seen a reflection of what’s happening overall because of the pandemic.

Phil: I would even argue, and I’ve thought about this since I wrote the post, I don’t think that the data necessarily avoids the conclusion that we were thinking about people going to lower cost options. At least anecdotally, you mentioned that Stephanie Moore has done this. I read an article that was looking at Ivy Tech in Indiana and they did extensive quoting of a couple of students who were doing exactly what you described. Hey, as long as I’m going online and things are changing, I’m going to shift to the community colleges [00:05:00] and go there. To a certain degree, I do think that’s happening, which might actually say the drop is even worse than what the numbers suggest. It’s sort of offsetting it. It’s just the matter of yes, I do think there are students going to lower cost options, but the overall economic impact is so much more to overwhelms it.

Kevin: If you think about the fact that the numbers of people going to college has increased as they’ve tried to make it more accessible to people from lower socio-economic income levels. What we’re seeing is a kind of a downshift of everybody, where the people who can afford to take on debt are doing so, because this is a time that they can get a graduate degree and MBA while they’re staying at home with their family and give them something to do. The next tier of people are saying, well, in order to save money, because I don’t want to leave my undergraduate [00:06:00] degree with a lot of debt, I’m going to do as much as I can, general education or part of my major, at a community college, and then jump into the four year when things settle down. Then we get to the group who says, hey, there are 11 million people still unemployed, we’re seeing this play out in the choice to just not reenroll in the fall because of those factors.

Phil: Kevin, you mentioned something I hadn’t thought about before, which was if you look at graduate enrollment across the board, enrollment went up this term. Public four years that went up four percent, the private nonprofit four years went up just like zero point two percent, but for profit graduate enrollment went up nine point three percent and overall two point seven. The point is graduate enrollment went up across the board. That gets to your point that those who can afford to take on debt and [00:07:00] get their degree are doing it. That really, even more so, shows the divide that’s growing. 

Jeanette: In the past when there is recessions or economic downturns, it seems like education was a safe place to go. It was sort of a safe industry, if you will, that people were still going to attend school. Maybe they decided to change careers or shift a little bit and they reinvest in themselves.

Phil: Beyond this aspect, I want to pick up on the important point about beginning first time students dropping off and not being a part of the class. Overall, the number was at sixteen point one percent of undergraduate, what they define as beginning student enrollment, went down this year. Some of the numbers are far larger. The community college, it’s down twenty two point seven percent pretty much across all age groups. If you look at public four year, it’s down [00:08:00] thirteen point seven percent for beginning students and private non-profits, down eleven point eight percent, but for profits, up three point seven percent.

This seems significant that you’ve got these beginning students, far fewer of them who are entering. That raises the question, are they going to be entering higher education later on? Is this a blip or is this going to be a longer term trend, at least for this cohort of students, if you will, or potential students? Kevin, how do you view it? How concerning is this drop in beginning students?

Kevin: I think it is concerning. The Student Senate from the California Community Colleges had a survey this past spring that students who responded they were experiencing higher levels of stress, were also experiencing loss of income and having to drop courses due to financial reasons. When we look at the people who are making the choice, can I afford to [00:09:00] jump into an academic endeavor when I’m also juggling possibly employment, possibly taking care of family members, either children or seniors or both, because we’re staying at home and clustering in family units. That just adds all these pressures where the first thing to shake out is going to be the education.

Add to that we have a smaller number of people who are college age going to college right now because the population’s smaller of that group of students. We just have a mix of factors that play into whether or not people are able to jump in. Now, whether or not that means they won’t be able to jump in later or that they may pursue something different, like a micro credential or a certificate rather than a full degree. That’s something that probably time [00:10:00] will tell.

Phil: Jeanette, what are your thoughts on this situation and how long lasting it might be?

Jeanette: I agree with Kevin on a lot of those points. I do think that there could be students that decided to sit this semester out for whatever reason, or perhaps the entire year, because they didn’t like the online experience. They really had it in their mind that they were going to have the full college experience, being on campus, wanting to be in the dorms, whatever, and that wasn’t open for them. They decided to take the year. It could be, though, like we’ve discussed, that was more of a financial burden, that they just weren’t able to attend college. I think that’s the more concerning one. Are these students not going to go back? Are they going to have other ways that they need to try to get that education, to get that better job to live the American dream of having a degree somehow and [00:11:00] have bettered themselves? I think what’s concerning is what’s going to happen to those students.

Phil: One of the arguments I made, and it’s probably the main argument I made in the blog post, got to the fact that there’s a demand for in-person learning, particularly for community college students, not all of them, but for a significant number of them. It was actually quoted in the article where the president CEO of the American Association of Community Community Colleges was saying, we are hearing from several sources that community college students are looking for in-person learning. The disruption of in-person learning to remote was absolutely necessary, but the enrollment figures show us that it’s not a good long term solution for many students.

I think people get tripped up on that saying, wait, there are plenty of people in community colleges with strong online programs, but the majority aren’t. I think that’s the group that’s really getting impact, the ones who [00:12:00] aren’t able to do a remote program, they don’t have reliable, quiet, predictable, or safe Internet access, or they need the social interaction with peers on campus. That group of people appears to be looking at college saying this doesn’t work for me, I can’t do this, or economically, doesn’t matter how good a quality it is, I can’t do it. I need to have a job right now or I need to have multiple jobs. I think there is a strong demand, particularly in community college, for in-person learning that we can’t overlook. We need to understand that.

Kevin: It would be interesting to see if the numbers line up from the different sets of data. The fact that we have about 23 percent drop in first time students at the community college level, and in the student surveys that we looked at all through the spring and summer, it was almost a quarter of students don’t have reliable access to a computer. Almost [00:13:00] a quarter, don’t have reliable access to the Internet, a stable connection at least. We’re seeing a lot of students driving to Starbucks or McDonald’s and sitting outside for the wireless and working out of their car for hours at a time, which is really hard to do. Almost a quarter said they don’t have a quiet place to study. I’m guessing that the Venn diagram is probably a strong overlap in those circles.

Also, there’s that social component that you’re talking about, not only from the president of the AACC, but the student that you quoted from San Francisco State, where I teach, lamented that she wasn’t able to have those in-person connections. Those connections are really important, especially if you think about, I quote Vincent Tinto, the concept that there are two strong streams that help a student persist in the academic enterprise. One is academic integration, do they feel they’re [00:14:00] able to complete their coursework and their degree long term. Also social integration. That social integration is more than just having parties. It has to do with classmates with whom you can study. They become future network connections in the workforce.

We’re social creatures, so a lot of campuses aren’t doing a good job of creating a virtual community of practice or of learning for those students. There was a great article in The Atlantic that described how students are seeking an experience, and how Americans, in general, are seeing it as a tradition to have a personal growth experience on a campus. It’s really hard to replicate online.

Jeanette: Yeah, I thought was a great article. It was by Ian Bogost, I think. It was more about how the college experience sort of seeps everything into that town, to just the [00:15:00] overall presence of what it is to be an American and how important it is. Like you said, it’s not just the partying, but that’s part of it. Right? It’s the studying, it’s being on the quad, it’s all of that. That’s what people are craving, and they can’t have right now, at least not safely. It’s a rite of passage for so many people because it continues on. You’re alumni, you’re still attached to that college. It’s part of a lot of American identity to be going to school and going to college. We can’t have that, at least it’s been really hard to replicate online.

Phil: Now, the trap we have to avoid, however, is thinking that all students are alike. There’s certainly a large number of students who remote may have worked in the spring, but it’s clearly not working for the fall and likely will not get much better, if any better moving beyond. At the same time, online education, it [00:16:00] has been growing slowly, but now it’s growing quickly and the numbers back this up.

If you look at primarily online institutions, which are essentially defined by more than 90 percent of enrollments at a school are for exclusively online programs, that went up across the board into fall, twenty six point eight percent increase at the undergraduate level, seven point two percent increase at the graduate level. For all age groups and all sectors that serve undergraduate and graduate education, they all went up for these POI’s. Part of what that shows, to me, is that there is a strong demand for online education.

At the same time, there’s strong demand for in person. If you’re going to have to go online, a lot of students are saying I might as well go to a school who already knows how to do online, a school that has already invested in online [00:17:00] education and all the support structures. These pre-existing POI’s, and that includes for profit and the Western Governors of Southern New Hampshire’s, but it also includes Penn State World Campus. Those enrollments are all going up. Arizona State is going up. Not everything is dropping. POI’s are actually increasing across the board.

Jeanette: That seems logical to me, right? I mean, if you’re a smart consumer and you know you’re going to be spending money on education, and especially if you were at a school that went online and it was not a very good experience, you’re going to start looking for someone that really knows what they’re doing and is going to give you the flexibility and the education you’re looking for if you’re going to be online anyway. To me, that seems like common sense.

Phil: Yeah, but there’s data behind this common sense now, so it reinforces it.

Jeanette: Yes, exactly.

Kevin: There’s data behind [00:18:00] the next step in the chain. Right? That’s getting people in the door. The group that I work with in Oakland, Peralta Community College District, their statistics from the spring craziness, the courses that started this semester online had higher persistence and success rates than the courses that began on ground and were shifted to remote. It’s the first time in their last six years of data collection that the online courses had higher levels than the face to face classes. They didn’t see the same disruptive factor of the move to online because the students were in a course that was designed to be online and they had even higher levels than the previous semester of online courses. In addition to getting in the door, people are succeeding in those environments because they’re built that way.

The converse is also true. I don’t remember if it was St. John Fisher College in New York or one of those smaller schools, but [00:19:00] they had like 3300 students go back to campus and a thousand of them left within a month to do the remote version of the courses because they weren’t satisfied with the in-person experience the way it had been set up for the fall. I think there’s a lot of factors at play in how the on ground campuses, those that have chosen to stay open, are conducting things as well.

Phil: There’s sort of an argument of whatever you’re going to do, you better make a decision early and do it right. If you’re going to do on ground or on campus programs, you better decide it early and you better have put in the precaution so that you can handle it and minimize risk, and that you’re actually serving the students who really need on campus education. If you’re going to do online and this is unfortunate for a lot of people, it’s like, well, you should have decided that years ago. Now it’s going to pay off by [00:20:00] having options that can work for students. 

Peralta’s benefiting from these online course persistence that’s actually, above the on campus version or the transition that’s there. You sort of need to pick what you’re doing, but then really commit and support it properly. That’s part of my interpretation of the data thus far.

Kevin: I’ll be putting together a blog post soon, looking at the announcements that campuses are making over the last six weeks. It’s interesting that very few of them are choosing to do anything different. If they went virtual in the fall, they’re pretty much going virtual again in the spring. If they were on campus, then they’re maybe making some tweaks to their core schedule. Not having a spring break seems to be pretty popular, and the students are pretty upset about it. They’re like, why do we have these five reading days? That’s a waste of my time. They’re not really paying attention to the wellness factors and all that, but more to come on that.

Phil: We should point out that the numbers that we’re primarily [00:21:00] talking about from the National Student Clearinghouse, that is basically beginning fall enrollment. It doesn’t capture the case of, hey, we started online, went to remote and a large number of students dropped out in the middle of the term. That type of enrollment change is not reflected yet. That’s something else to watch for with data.

We’re in some very challenging times, but that’s part of the reason that we want to look at this data and try to figure out what lessons learned we can apply. Really we, Kevin, Jeanette and I, are trying to focus much more on what does this mean for the spring? What does this mean for the next term? I think there are elements where we can be optimistic, but we’re not done finding situations that we need to worry about either.

Any final thoughts from both of you on what we know thus [00:22:00] far and what we’re looking for?

Kevin: I think we know that we don’t know enough. I think, again, that the tweaks the campuses that are choosing to stay open in the spring, they’re not making many pedagogical tweaks, they’re making cosmetic tweaks in my mind. I’m really interested to see, again, if we’re going to see an upswing in the quality of online courses for those campuses that have chosen to stay virtual because those instructors are getting more experience with online teaching and those campuses that are trying their best to provide some sort of hybrid experience, limited number of face to face courses. Are they doing them in a better way than they did this fall? Hopefully we’re learning from what we’re doing and not just maintaining a status quo, because that’s what we feel compelled to do for financial reasons.

Phil: Jeanette, any final thoughts? Try to end this on a cheerier note than we’ve been so far. That’s the challenge.

Jeanette: I will try. Piggybacking [00:23:00] off of what Kevin said, I think that schools are likely going to need to look at how to do hybrid or at least Hyflex. I think the one thing that going online has really shown is that students are going to likely want to have that flexibility moving forward. It may be when things back to normal. It’s going to be interesting to see how schools adjust to this and to see if they can continue on in offering really high quality education. I think that’s what it all comes down to in all of this, and if they can do that moving forward. I think most schools are up to the challenge. There’s my positive.

Phil: Just close out and finish on it, I do think the schools that make it through, because not all of them are going to make it through, I don’t think we’re going to have the bloodbath of 30 percent of schools shutting down, but I think that this experience will make schools more resilient in [00:24:00] the future. To varying degrees, there will be winners and losers. I’m also hoping that we’ll have a long term benefit by institutional resilience moving forward.

It’s great talking to you, too. Enjoy your weekend.

Kevin: You, too.