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While College Enrollment Sees A Decline Nationally Amid Pandemic, Florida Grows Slightly


The number of students attending higher education institutions fell slightly between 2019 and 2020, continuing a decline that started even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

While four-year college undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.6% year-over-year, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported community colleges took a far bigger hit, with an unprecedented decline of 13.1% in freshmen enrollment or more than 327,500 students.

All public two-year institutions saw a loss of 10.1% last year.

Martha Parham is Senior Vice President for Public Relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. She said students who attend such schools are a little bit different than a typical four-year university student.

“Our students are a little bit older, with the average age being 28 and the median age being 24. A lot of them are first-generation college students,” she said.

Many of them are also single parents, and Parnham said that most of them — 72% of part-time students and 62% of full-time students — work.

“And a lot of them work in industries that were greatly impacted by the effects of COVID-19,” said Parnham.

“If their jobs were impacted by the pandemic, they can no longer afford to go to school, or they're looking for other work. In other cases, you have people that are trying to parent school-aged children, that are also taking classes on the computer. And maybe they just don't have the bandwidth to do their own school plus school for the kids.”

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, popular majors at two-year institutions also saw heavy drops.

Liberal Arts/General Studies saw 209,400 fewer students enroll, an 11.9% decrease; Business/Management lost 52,300 students, a 9.2% decrease; and Health Professions/Related majors lost about 18,600 students, a 2.3% decrease.

Overall, the nation’s total postsecondary enrollment fell from 17.9 million students in 2019 to 17.5 million in 2020.

The one bright spot is that graduate school enrollment increased nationally by 3.6% since 2019.

In addition, Florida is among the 12 states that saw total college enrollment increase last year — up 1.3% during the pandemic.

But Parham admits she has no clue why those states are seeing increased enrollment while others around them fall.

“I wish we knew what the secret sauce was. We are seeing pockets of enrollment increases in places, Florida being one of them.”

Florida saw enrollment at public four-year universities drop 0.2% in 2020, 0.7% at private four-year colleges, and 15.5% percent at public two-year colleges.

However, Florida also posted a 64% jump in what the center characterized as “other” institutions — an increase from 33,130 students enrolled to 54,486.

While no one knows when the pandemic will be over or when things could return to some state of normalcy, Parham believes the key to turning the decline in community college enrollment around lies within the community.

“The beauty of the community college is that it's reflective of the needs of its local community; the majority of our colleges are looking at effective ways to communicate with students,” she said.

“They are looking at ways they can talk to students they currently have or students that just stopped out of their education during the pandemic to bring them back to college.”

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Devonta Davis