New college enrollments plunged 16% this fall as incoming freshmen opted for gap years over virtual learning

A student has a tented study area to himself at the University of California, Irvine in Irvine, CA on Friday, October 2, 2020. Classes started Thursday, October 1st but most are online, leaving few students on campus due to COVID-19 restrictions.Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
  • New college enrollments sank 16% this fall semester, a new report found.
  • Overall attendance at universities and two-year schools was down 4%, according to data released Thursday from National Student Clearinghouse, exacerbating an already sinking trend.
  • The plunge could spell financial disaster for many schools as tuition revenue declines in step with enrollment.
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Colleges and universities across the country have braced for massive financial headwinds stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, and now there's data to quantify their fears.

New undergraduate enrollment fell 16% for the fall semester, data released Thursday from National Student Clearinghouse shows, as overall enrollment fell 4%. International students and first-time students also saw large drops.

In March, schools both large and small were forced to go virtual almost overnight. Over the summer, as the pandemic raged on, many schools opted to teach only online in the fall and beyond. Many others that did welcome students on campus saw major outbreaks that in some cases caused a switch back to digital learning.
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Two-year schools saw particularly stark declines. Coupled with demographic trends, the clearinghouse says enrollment decline of Black women at these community colleges "outpaced all other major racial/ethnic groups."

The only schools bucking national trends were private, for-profit schools. Enrollment at those universities rose 9.4%, the data shows.

Large swaths of students, as evidenced by Thursday's report, decided the sky-high tuition prices for which American higher education is notorious were simply not worth the cost without in-person classes, extracurriculars, and everything else that comes with campus life.
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That's a big problem for colleges and universities that were already in precarious financial situations. The Hechinger Report found in August that roughly a quarter of US institutions were showing "warning signs" of financial distress amid a long-term trend of declining enrollment. That's not helped by a continued trend of declining public funding for state colleges and universities.

"Think of the revenue shocks these universities are suffering," Gregory Price, an economics and finance professor at the University of New Orleans, said in the report. "I don't want to sound too alarmist, but this could possibly be devastating."
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