By on 4.29.21 in Education

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) regularly publishes research supporting education, workforce, and learner success, by identifying different student educational pathways. Specifically, the NCSRC calculates the number of high school graduates who immediately enroll in college after graduation. In March 2021, the NSCRC released a report on on-time fall college data enrollment that addressed the impact of COVID-19. This report corrected an earlier December release that said that on-time fall postsecondary enrollment had declined by 21.7%.

Instead, the decrease was 6.8%. Though smaller than what was initially reported, -6.8% is still a large decrease in the number of students immediately enrolling in college during the fall following high school graduation. In this post, we look at what on-time postsecondary enrollment is and why it matters.

What is on-time enrollment in postsecondary and why does it matter?

As we detailed in our March 2019 Leaky Pipeline report, educational attainment is a process with multiple key steps. After completing high school, individuals must enroll in college and persist in their enrollment until degree completion.

The on-time enrollment rate or immediate college enrollment rate is an indicator of the share of graduates on a traditional postsecondary path, meaning they transition to postsecondary in the fall after high school graduation. Though many individuals delay entry into postsecondary, immediate enrollment is the easiest point at which institutions and policy makers can intervene to increase the overall college-going rate. According to the NSCRC, the on-time enrollment rate declined from 60.5% in 2019 to 56.5% in 2020.

What were the findings and what do they mean?

  • COVID-19 had a significant impact on high school students’ on-time enrollment for college in 2020. Prior to the pandemic, the number of on-time enrollments were declining (-1.5% between 2018 and 2019), and the pandemic has exacerbated these declines.
  • There were large declines in the number of on-time enrollments among low income high schools (-10.7%). Between 2019 and 2020, The immediate college enrollment rate for students declined 5.3 percentage points (from 52.5% to 47.2%) for students from low income high schools compared to 3.2 percentage points (from 65.1% to 61.9%) for students from higher income high schools. This indicates that the pandemic is making the established gap between students from well-resourced schools and low-resourced schools even wider as it relates to postsecondary on-time enrollment.
  • High schools with high minority populations had larger on-time enrollment declines. Specifically, for high schools where 40% or more of their students were Black or Hispanic (“high minority”), total college enrollees in 2020 declined 9.4% compared to a 0.9% decline in 2019. Low minority schools reported a 4.8% decline in 2020 compared to a 2% decline the year prior. Immediate college-going rates declined 4.9 percentage points (from 53.8% to 48.9%) among students from high minority high schools compared to a decline of 3.3 percentage points (65.7% to 62.4%) among students from low minority schools. Again, this data suggests that pandemic is exacerbating the on-time enrollment gap between racial and ethnic groups.

How are these enrollment declines impacting postsecondary institutions?

Nationwide, on-time enrollment declined for all institution types: public 4-year programs (-3.0%), private 4-year colleges and universities (-5.2%), and community colleges (-13.2%). Declines in the on-time enrollment of recent high school graduates were more pronounced than overall enrollment declines.

Within North Carolina specifically, the University of North Carolina System announced that fall 2020 was its third straight year of record-setting enrollment. Meanwhile, North Carolina community college enrollment fell by 11% in Fall 2020, as compared to Fall 2019, with the largest declines in Continuing Education and Basic Skills programs. Additional information regarding this drop suggested several causes, including broadband internet access, the difficulty of remote instruction, and financial considerations.

Based on the data presented above, it’s clear that COVID-19 is having a differential impact on under resourced students and students of color. This data exposes the educational inequities that existed pre-pandemic and that the pandemic certainly magnified. In that respect, it offers policy makers, researchers, and other key stakeholder groups to go deeper on why these inequities were exacerbated, and potentially identify some policy solutions or fixes that could decrease these differences.


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