Higher Education Enrollment Takes A Hit

Yet again we have events in 2020 bucking a long-standing trend.  This time it is college enrollment during a recession.  Traditionally enrollment in public and private 2-year and 4-year colleges increases rather dramatically during an economic recession.  With fewer employment options many individuals return to school, or stay in school longer, to learn new skills or begin another degree.  After all, economists would say that the opportunity cost of so doing is low during times of high unemployment.
Yet, as detailed in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, preliminary undergraduate enrollment numbers for the fall 2020 semester show just the reverse - enrollment nationwide fell between 2% and 4% at 4-year institutions from one year ago. Across the country, public 2-year institutions, better known as community colleges, have taken a much harder hit with enrollment plummeting 9.5% from fall 2019 counts.1
Although currently much lower than its peak of 14.7% in April, the unemployment rate for the U.S. has yet to drop to the pre-pandemic historic lows last seen in February - prime conditions to drive up higher education enrollment.2
What about Texas?  How well are colleges in Texas faring? According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, public 4-year colleges in Texas saw a 1% decline in statewide preliminary fall 2020 enrollment counts. Preliminary fall 2020 enrollment counts for Texas community colleges decreased by 7.1% from fall 2019. Just one year prior, enrollment had increased a modest 1% from 2018. Thus, Texas is following a broadly similar pattern to the nationwide numbers, albeit with some moderation likely due to Texas’ continued population growth.3

Locally, the news is mixed. Texas A&M University reports fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment increased by 3.0% to 53,181 compared to 51,625 in 2019 at the College Station campus. Across the College Station, Galveston, Health Science Center, and Qatar campuses, undergraduate enrollment increased from 54,476 students in 2019 to 56,205 students for fall 2020, a 3.2% increase. Total enrollment including graduate and professional students increased from 69,465 to 71,109 for a 2.4% increase.4 Meanwhile, Blinn College District enrollment decreased from 19,183 students in fall 2019 to 17,956 students in fall 2020, a 6.6% drop.5 Of those, the Bryan campus enrolled 6,776 students.

Would-be students responding to a survey by the American Association of Community Colleges mentioned a shortage of funds due to job loss, lack of childcare, and insufficient internet availability needed to complete online classwork as a few of the obstacles to enrolling in college at this time.6
With a vaccine on the horizon, hopefully this enrollment aberration will be rectified in the new year.
1 https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed/
2 https://www.bls.gov/charts/employment-situation/civilian-unemployment-rate.htm
3 https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed/
5 https://www.blinn.edu/news/2020/12/blinn-board-receives-fall-2020-enrollment-report-update-on-districtwide-master-plan.html
6 https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/09/24/college-enrollment-coronavirus/

Posted: December 03, 2020 by Ashley Bullock, Dennis W. Jansen, Andrew J. Rettenmaier