Public Higher Ed Enrollment Down 7% In Mass.

(Courtesy Massachusetts Department of Higher Education)
(Courtesy Massachusetts Department of Higher Education)

Undergraduate enrollment levels at public higher education institutions took a historic tumble this fall, and education officials say they are fearful that the pandemic may forever throw college education plans off course for some students.

Undergraduate student enrollment in the Massachusetts public higher education system dropped roughly 7%, the largest single-year decrease since data collection began, according to preliminary data presented Tuesday to the Board of Higher Education. And fall enrollment trends for first-time degree-seeking students are down across the board, with the greatest decrease at the community college level.

The pandemic brought on an altered fall semester where students are adjusting to new teaching formats, restricted campus life, and increased financial strains as a result of an economic downturn associated with COVID-19. Middlesex Community College President James Marby said many students are being forced to put off education plans due to financial strain.

"Millions of jobs in the hospitality and retail sectors are gone and tragically many of our students have lost jobs," he said during the meeting. "They're being forced to put off their educational plans. And we are concerned that many may not be able to get back on track."

Jonathan Keller, an official at the Department of Education, said the impacts of the pandemic are having a disproportionate effect on low-income students and students of color.

"There's a fear that a lot of the students who decided they just won't go this year, may have difficulty deciding in subsequent years that they're gonna go back to higher education," said Keller, who presented the enrollment data to the board. "And it suggests implementations that really focus on these students and figuring out who the students we're losing."

Preliminary enrollment numbers presented Tuesday take into account community colleges, state universities, and the University of Massachusetts, where enrollment is down by half a percentage point compared to 2019. The numbers only look at undergraduates and do not account for graduate programs or full-time equivalency.

The Department of Education plans to finalize fall data collection in December.

The public higher education system's total undergraduate enrollment dropped from just over 172,000 students in fall 2019 to 160,360 a year later.

"There's been declines for a stretch of time and those have been mainly associated with demographic issues," Keller said. "But this most recent decline really can't be attributed to demographics alone, it really seems to suggest a very strong impact from the pandemic."

Much of the decline can be attributed to community colleges, which had the largest single-year undergraduate enrollment loss out of the three levels of higher education. Community colleges hit a peak enrollment of 100,798 in fall 2012 and then over the course of eight years dropped to 67,415 in fall 2020.

The 15 community colleges announced Monday that they plan to continue with largely remote, online, and hybrid learning formats for the spring semester. A minimal number of classes are slated to occur in-person such as labs and clinics.

Fall 2020 enrollments for first-time degree-seeking students at a majority of the community colleges in the state are at an all-time low. Massasoit Community College in Brockton experienced the sharpest decline in this category, with a nearly 35% decrease from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

Aside from providing preliminary fall undergraduate enrollment numbers, the report offered the top ten prevalent factors that institutions said had a negative impact on undergraduate enrollment.

That list included students taking time off, increased child care and parenting responsibilities, and discomfort or dissatisfaction with distanced learning. Students most commonly cited personal finances as the top factor in deciding not to attend or return to colleges or universities, according to Keller.

Department of Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago praised all levels of public higher education in the state, saying institutions have responded well to the fall semester openings. He said "robust" communication, information sharing, and coordination within the system have helped immensely.

"For all of our initial angst, the public higher education system has responded to the COVID-19 challenge professionally and effectively," he said Tuesday. "We still have significant challenges, both financial challenges that have been brought about by expenditures on COVID-19 as well as the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what the fall and winter will bring."



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