College Enrollment Declines as Challenges to Higher Education Access Grow for Low-Income Students

October 16, 2020 | Ohio

College Enrollment Declines as Challenges to Higher Education Access Grow for Low-Income Students

October 16, 2020

By Alison Paxson, Policy & Communications Associate

Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio works relentlessly to make sure all children are able to thrive and flourish into adulthood. However, many of our youth and young adults who struggle economically face additional barriers to achieving their goals due the disproportionate impacts on BIPOC and low-income communities. Pitted against increasingly difficult odds due to the economy and remote learning, many low-income students either entering or returning to college this fall are not enrolling at all or leaving before they graduate.

New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released one month since fall semesters began indicates that post-secondary enrollment is down 3% overall since last fall. Undergraduate enrollment in particular is down 4% across the nation, and enrollment in graduate programs, too, is down by 2.7%.

Few institutions are as integral to our democracy as our education system, and we risk an increasingly less equitable society if we allow educational opportunity gaps to not only persist but grow, especially in access to higher education.

College enrollment typically grows during an economic recession. Many individuals experiencing a weak job market and employment prospects  will seek higher education and training programs to improve their employability. During the Great Recession, for example, college enrollment increased dramatically – by 3 million students from 2006-2011, a growth of 33% among two-year colleges alone. Although, not uniform across the board, enrollment increases were seen across all racial and ethnic demographics.

However, what we are seeing during today’s economic downturn is markedly different, and like so many other issues facing our nation, it demonstrates how disproportionately the burdens of these crises are being shouldered across the United States.

While public and private nonprofit four-year institutions show a slight drop in enrollment of 2% or less and for-profit four-year colleges have enrollment rates that are actually 3% higher than last fall, community college enrollment has declined by 9.4%, “nearly nine times their pre-pandemic loss rate”. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, “the decline equates to more than 600,000 students not enrolling at community colleges” this year.

Many fear that the hundreds of thousands of students who have decided not to continue their studies at the community college where they were enrolled will never return to pursue their degrees. Only 13% of students who leave college return and even less graduate when they return.

Regional and geographical characteristics figure greatly here as well. The region with the biggest declines in undergraduate student enrollment is the Midwest. In fact, Ohio is one of seven states that saw its rates for both undergraduate and graduate enrollment decline over the last year. In earlier data comparing summer 2019 enrollment to summer 2020, it was found that student enrollment declined by 8% for rural public four-year institutions, even while most other four-year colleges and universities just saw slight drops in their student bodies.

The most significant decline in enrollment among any group nationally is a 16.1% decline in first-year college students. Community colleges alone are seeing a nearly 23% drop in first-time students in their fall 2020 semesters.

Our community colleges are critical levers for equity and diversity in educational opportunity across all income levels and demographics. In the 2014-2015 school year, nearly half of all students who completed a degree at a four-year institution had attended a two-year institution at some point in the previous ten years. Additionally, according to Columbia University’s Community College Research Center: nearly 40% of all undergraduates attended public two-year colleges in the 2017-2018 school year; approximately 55% of dependent students with family incomes below $30,000 the 2011-2012 school year started at a community college; and “among college students who first enrolled in fall 2013, 39% of Black students and 46% of Hispanic students started at a two-year public college, compared with 29% of White students and 30% of Asian students.” Further, the largest share of parenting students attend community colleges (42%).

Mounting financial pressures, family responsibilities, and lack of reliable internet are critical barriers holding many adults back from pursuing college opportunities. Young people have been hit particularly hard by high levels of unemployment since the pandemic began. Further, the federal COVID-19 relief has done little to alieve financial stressors as many young adults did not qualify for stimulus checks this spring, leaving many food insecure and at risk of homelessness.

We cannot force a generation of young adults to make impossible choices between food on the table, a house to live in, caring for their children and other family members, and the educations they want to pursue for the wellbeing of themselves and their future families.

In order to make higher education more accessible for low-income students right now, we must:

Urge Congress to pass additional COVID-19 relief for adults seeking to improve their skills. Adults in college who are in financial distress need emergency cash to avoid housing and food insecurity. Further, during this time and through recovery, broad student loan forgiveness programs must be revisited as proposed in the HEROES Act ($10,000 forgiveness).

Support Stability of Higher Education Institutions. Community colleges experienced significant declines in enrollment this fall. These declines also mean decreases in resources and funding. Many colleges across the country are reducing academic programs, student services, and student scholarships and others are at real risk of going under.

Tie suspension of student loan repayment to the economic recovery. The student loan repayment suspension currently expires on Dec. 31, 2020, but we need to continue this suspension through economic recovery and not end it on an arbitrary date.

Continue to conduct outreach to help students and their families with financial aid and FAFSA. According to some estimates, 40% of parents who had no plans to apply for financial aid are now in positions where they need to do so for their children to go to college due to the pandemic’s impact on their finances. With school closures in effect for many districts since March, many college readiness events, information sessions, and resource fairs have been cancelled, but now more than ever, young people need financial aid information and support. We need to fund community public education efforts to help low-income and first generation students to fill out the FAFSA early and effectively and learn more about what assistance is available to them to attend college.

Gain a better understanding the types of digital gaps students face and do more to support their needs. Institutions of higher education need to act now to survey and gain a better understanding of the needs of their students in remote learning. Lack of reliable internet or access to devices they would have ordinarily had at their disposal to in campus libraries cannot be used as rationale for leaving college without a degree and not returning.

Pass the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act before 2020 is over. Many college students have cited a lack of connectivity as a main contributor to their inability to complete their coursework. In the absence of devices and internet services on campus with enough capability to support their zoom calls and webinars, many students do not have options for internet access. Introduced in May, this piece of legislation would provide federal funds to assist colleges and universities with the provision of essential internet services for students and also with technological equipment, such as laptops and tablets. This legislation is currently in the Education and Labor and Energy and Commerce Committees in the House of Representatives and needs to be passed before this general assembly ends and it dies.

Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash