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Fall college enrollment drops 16% amid COVID-19: RPT

National Student Clearinghouse Executive Director of Research Doug Shapiro joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss a decline in college enrollment amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Obviously, a trend that we've seen here beginning with the sad fact that a lot of college students weren't able to graduate together in person due to the pandemic. We've also seen a decline in students coming back to campus to kick off this year on college campuses, if they're even invited back at all.

And an interesting new report is highlighting how impactful that is for colleges across the board, not just public or private, but also community colleges here as well. And for more on the report digging into that drop, I want to bring on Doug Shapiro, National Student Clearinghouse executive director of research.

And Doug, thanks for coming on. I mean, I was looking through your guys' report, and it's shocking to see first-time students, the biggest drop here across the nation, down more than 16% nationwide. So talk to me about what you're seeing in terms of students not going back to campus.

DOUG SHAPIRO: Yeah, so this is one of the biggest surprises in the report this month. While the total number of undergraduate students has declined 4% from the same time last year, there is a huge disparity between first-time students, who are down by 16 and 1/2%, and returning students, who are down only 1 and 1/2%.

So, you know, you could say it's encouraging that most students who were already enrolled in college last spring or last fall have been able to stay enrolled. There are now hundreds of thousands of freshmen who simply didn't show up for college at all compared to last year.

ZACK GUZMAN: And that's surprising, considering some of the stances by a lot of schools out there, Harvard being one of them that wanted freshmen to come back. But maybe those other students didn't get invited back to campus. So maybe just more students saying, look, I'm going to defer if I can't get the full college experience.

But you also noted community college were specifically hit hard, even a larger percentage of students not going back there. So what's going on, on that front?

DOUG SHAPIRO: Yeah, absolutely. The community colleges' freshman classes are down by 23% from the same time last year. And at four-year colleges, it's only about half that rate, 11% or 12% fewer students at the four-year publics and private non-profits.

And I think there are two very different phenomena happening there. At the four-year colleges, I think they tend to enroll more upper income students who are making a conscious choice. It's an option for them. And they've decided they'd prefer to sit out a year and hope to come back next year when maybe they'll be able to have some face-to-face classes.

Whereas at community colleges, these tend to be lower income students who really don't have an option. Their family finances have been hurt so hard they can't afford to do any college at all right now. And many of them are also simply not able to participate in online classes. They don't have internet access. They don't have up-to-date devices, and so many other challenges that these students are facing.

ZACK GUZMAN: The one bright spot, too, in the report seemed to be an increase in graduate student enrollment, maybe the opposite of the story you're describing there, as these students tend to have a little bit more in resources maybe beyond what community college students might have.

But looking at it demographically as well, how did it break down in terms of these declines, since we know a lot of colleges depend on not seeing a drop in students come back 'cause they need that money to function. So talk to me about that.

DOUG SHAPIRO: Well, I think that there have been significant drops in international students in particular, at both the undergraduate and graduate level. And those are of-- those are generally full-time-- sorry, full-pay students that many colleges rely on to bring in additional revenue. So that's going to be painful particularly for the colleges.

But the graduate students are similar to what we're seeing in the community colleges, where many people expected to see increases among older students and graduate students. This is what happens typically in a recession. You have a lot of people out of work. And it's a good time to upskill, to prepare for when the job market improves.

So the fact that we're seeing such huge declines at community colleges when, even among older students, adult students, when so many people expected increases there, is really, really troubling.

ZACK GUZMAN: I guess, optimistically, too, looking into the future and next year, because, obviously, I think a lot of people were caught flat-footed in terms of how colleges might be hit on that front and students deferring, we did see cases in terms of COVID-19 cases on college campuses as a percentage of the states that we're seeing come down.

So when you're looking ahead to next year maybe when colleges will have to deal with this all over again and starting a new year, what are your expectations for maybe what we see on that front?

DOUG SHAPIRO: Well, like you said, I think everything depends on what happens with the pandemic. There's no question that this will be very challenging financially for many schools.

But of course, the students are who I'm most concerned about. And I think many of these students are at risk of suffering permanent gaps in the acquisition of learning and skills that could take years to recover, even if they do manage to get back into school next fall.