On Monday, December 14, Story Partners spoke with Doug Shapiro, Ph.D., Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, about the state of higher education amid the pandemic, specifically the effect of the pandemic on college access for students, and the future of higher education in 2021 and beyond.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center regularly publishes research on education, workforce, and learner success to benefit and better inform the education community, policymakers, business leaders, and other community leaders. The research uses current data from college and university registrars to offer objective data and insights about student enrollment, mobility, completion, and more.
What were the main research findings of how college enrollment has been impacted by the pandemic this year? What does the research mean for K12, higher education and society as a whole?
The main takeaways from the High School Benchmarks With a COVID-19 Special Analysis were the disparity between advantaged and less advantaged students in terms of their ability to access college and the dramatic changes in college enrollment rates for students.
There have been around 20% fewer high school graduates going to college this year, even though there has been no decline in the number of students graduating from high school this past June. While the pandemic did not affect students’ ability to finish their high school diplomas last spring, far fewer of them were able to go to college, particularly for students from low-income and minority high schools who would ordinarily have gone to community colleges.
The disparity has huge implications for the future of higher education and the future lives of so many students. There is a risk of a lost generation in terms of educational attainment and skill development, potential future employability and productivity, and economic mobility and equity in our society. As a society, we will have to do a tremendous amount of work to make sure that the class of 2020 can get back on track. We also have a considerable amount of work to do, now that we know the risk, to make sure that it does not happen again for the class of 2021.
What actions can higher education institutions take in 2021 and in the future to address those concerns?
A lot of the actions will need to take place on the high school side. Students generally receive support from high school counselors and community organizations to help them understand their college options and assist with the application and financial aid processes. We have seen huge drops in the FAFSA completion and college application numbers this year. High schools will have to do double their work next year, and we have to do all we can to help the high schools build the capacity to do that — to keep next year’s students on track for post-secondary education, as well as to help the 2020 students to get back on track.
There’s also work that needs to be done to support community colleges. There are truly staggering declines in the number of students overall, particularly the number of Black, Indigenous and Latinx students enrolling and staying in community colleges. These institutions are the main access points for many disadvantaged students into higher education; the decline in the number of students will reverberate and continue for years as colleges will feel the absence of the freshmen, returning adults and continuing students who didn’t attend this year.
As 2020 comes to an end and we look ahead to the new year, what research do you have planned to address these ongoing issues?
We must continue to provide real data and current and timely analysis of those data so that policymakers and practitioners can work from those reports. We plan to continue the pace of reporting and the range of reporting that we did this past fall. We will continue our monthly reports to provide regular updates on total enrollments of new students, returning students and adults coming out of the workforce, and the transfer behaviors of students. Additionally, we will continue to report on persistence and retention for students already in the higher education system, including students’ ability to stay full time vs. moving to part time.
How can the higher education field use the Research Center’s data to help students chart pathways to ensure they receive an education that will allow them to compete in an evolving workforce after graduation?
This has been a challenge for higher education for years and it’s only going to get harder. Many schools are employing innovative methods and technologies to help make this easier for students. Many have succeeded in using predictive analytics to understand earlier when students are experiencing difficulties or at risk and finding ways to intervene and keep them on track. I think those efforts, primarily at the institution level, need to be redoubled and the institutions who aren’t doing enough of it should seek opportunities to learn from the ones who are doing the best.
I also think there has to be a huge re-dedication from society and policymakers to support students financially, in their ability to afford higher education. That comes not just from state and federal financial aid but also state support for institutions. In particular, I think the community colleges are at considerable risk because of the decline in state budgets due to the recession and compounded by their declines in enrollments. We need a stronger sense of purpose to reinvest and make sure that these institutions survive.