US universities’ new intakes shrink 16 per cent year-on-year

Freshers and international recruits stay away as overall enrolment drops 4 per cent

October 15, 2020
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Undergraduate enrolment at US universities during the Covid-disrupted autumn semester is down 4 per cent from last year, driven by a 16 per cent drop among freshers, an updated nationwide tally has found.

The only institutional categories showing enrolment growth during the pandemic were for-profit and traditionally online colleges, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center said in the second update of its data for the current semester.

The numbers demonstrate the urgency of finding either a vaccine or reliable treatment for coronavirus, said Terry Hartle, the senior vice-president for government relations at the American Council on Education, the main organisational grouping of US colleges.

“The longer we go without either, or both, the more enrolment pressure schools will feel and the greater will be the need to take significant action to reduce spending,” Dr Hartle said.

The Clearinghouse’s first report, last month, covered 22 per cent of US institutions and showed only a 2 per cent decline. The new report, showing the 4 per cent drop, covers the 54 per cent of US institutions that reported their data by 24 September.

That initial report last month seemed “a little too good to be true”, Dr Hartle said, perhaps reflecting healthier institutions that compiled their figures more quickly.

The new round of figures nevertheless affirms the heavy avoidance of two-year institutions, despite the nation’s longstanding pattern of community colleges faring well during times of economic stress. Autumn enrolment is down 9.4 per cent at community colleges, with numbers of new starters down almost 23 per cent.

Yet their chief competition for job-specific training – the chains of four-year for-profit colleges favoured by the Trump administration despite their overall poorer student outcomes – saw their enrolment rise 3 per cent.

Traditional colleges did show one positive sign from an economic perspective: enrolment at graduate schools – understood to be more expensive for students and more profitable for institutions – was up almost 3 per cent.

US colleges that were primarily online before the pandemic also demonstrated their relative value during the Covid lockdown, with their enrolment at both the undergraduate and graduate levels rising about 7 per cent, the Clearinghouse reported.

The drop in undergraduate enrolment was fairly consistent among racial groups, falling 7.9 per cent among black students, 7.6 per cent among whites and 6.1 per cent among Hispanics.

Enrolment by overseas undergraduates at US colleges and universities was down almost 14 per cent.

US colleges may take some comfort in the expectation that their enrolment troubles are due almost entirely to freshers, who may only be deferring their educations until they can safely return to campus, Dr Hartle said.

But colleges should be concerned that some students who defer – especially low-income and first-generation students – might never start, he said.

“And, since going to college immediately after high school is very important in terms of completion, we may be looking at a cohort of students who will have less college education than their older brothers and sisters,” Dr Hartle said.

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