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Is COVID Fueling Unequal College Enrollment?

I am a college professor. COVID has definitely changed my job. I teach in a mask now. Questions are asked of the students in the classroom, then those on Zoom. I make sure everything is recorded online for those across the world. “Office” hours have become Zoom Hours. Assignments aren’t handed in, they’re uploaded. But…at least I get to keep doing my job. Sure, if I say “I think you’re muted” one more time, I might flip out. Otherwise, I’m pretty lucky.

But, I do worry about the students. After all, being a student in these times is tough. At the very least, you need good internet and to be able to focus when classes may not be in person. But many students also need to help parents that may be struggling economically. Or with family members that are sick. For some students, this may just make studying difficult. But for others, it may be enough to keep them from enrolling at all.

Indeed, a quick search of “COVID” and “college enrollment” turned up a wide-array of articles. In these articles, students of color and low-income students were a frequent source of concern. Some worried specifically about the effects of the pandemic on Hispanic students. And, other articles pointed out that reductions in college enrollment were especially large at community colleges, which often serve these students. The fear seemed to be that if enrollment has dropped, it will have dropped unequally.

So, I thought I would write a quick post looking at some data on the topic. I had two simple questions. First, is college enrollment down prior to last year? Second, if it is down, has the drop been unequal?

Question 1: Has College Enrollment Dropped?

To look at both questions, I turned to the Current Population Survey (CPS). The CPS is the same survey that yields national unemployment numbers. To examine enrollment, I looked at the share of 18 to 22 year old people who were no longer in High School and who claimed to be enrolled full- or part-time in college in the week prior to being surveyed by the CPS. This enrollment rate was calculated using data from September and October in each year from 2000 to 2020.

The figure below shows the trend over this two decade period. It shows a drop in enrollment between September/October 2019 and 2020, but not an extraordinary one. The decrease from 51.4 to 50.3 percent marks an overall reduction in college enrollment of 2.3 percent. (It’s worth noting that these data include only U.S. residents, and international enrollment has also dropped. So, you may see slightly higher reduction numbers elsewhere.)

Figure 1. Share of 18 to 22 Year Olds Enrolled in College, September/October 2000-2020

Note: Excludes students who claim to still be enrolled in High School. Source: University of Minnesota, IPUMS-CPS.

Given that over this period, the share enrolled has averaged a 0.7 percent increase, any decrease is concerning. But, the change from 2019 to 2020 isn’t even the biggest decrease in this two-decade stretch, 2012 to 2013 saw a bigger one. So, the level of alarm to feel isn’t clear just yet — we probably need a bit more data. However, most of the articles I read also expressed concern that the drop in enrollment has been unequal. Let’s see if that’s true.

Question 2: Has College Enrollment Dropped Unequally?

To see if college enrollment dropped unequally, I divided the sample into eight groups. First, by gender as reported to the CPS. Then, by race/ethnicity: 1) white, non-Hispanic; 2) Black, non-Hispanic; 3) Hispanic; and 4) Asian, non-Hispanic. I then calculated the change in enrollment between September/October 2019 and 2020.

The results are below, and are not especially encouraging. In particular, Black men, Hispanic men, and Asian men all saw sizable decreases in enrollment. Indeed, the decrease seen by Black men is 1.5 times as large as the next largest year-over-year decrease since 2000. When considering that over this twenty-year span, Black men saw annual increases in enrollment that averaged 1.1 percent, this departure is concerning. Among women, the picture is better, with the exception of Asian women. And while it’s worth noting that the sample of Asian people is the smallest in this analysis (meaning the drop could be noise), the fact that Asian people were the only group to see a decline in enrollment for both men and women is definitely concerning.

Figure 2. Change in Share of 18-22 Year Olds Enrolled in College September/October 2019-2020

Note: Excludes students who claim to still be enrolled in High School. Source: University of Minnesota, IPUMS-CPS.

A Blip or a Slip?

It seems that the answer to the two questions are 1) a little; and 2) yes. College enrollment did drop, although the drop was not extreme. And, the drop was definitely unequal. The brunt of the inequality seems to be falling on men of color, and especially Black men. Unfortunately, what else is new? And, the large drop in enrollment for Asian people is very concerning, and worth keeping an eye on as more data become available. The only good news is that Black and Hispanic women appear to still be enrolling in college at a similar rate as last year.

The question going forward is the extent to which this analysis holds in the future. I could see two reasons why it may not. First, this analysis represents a snapshot of two months of data based on 12,000 people in 2020. That number may sound big, but it’s just 2,400 Hispanic people, 1,400 Black people, and 1,000 Asian people. It’s possible that some of the declines are statistical noise (and, sadly, even the encouraging increases for Black and Hispanic women could be noise). Secondly, the vaccine news of late has been good, and the observed drops could be undone if things return to normal. Fingers crossed.

But, in any case, these trends are worth a second look in a few months, and then again in a year. Because over the last several decades, education has only become more important in determining wages. If Black, Hispanic, and Asian men and Asian women’s college enrollment has dropped and does not recover, it would dent their ability to compete in labor markets permanently.

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