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Over the last few weeks, as I’ve zoomed into virtual events with high-school students, parents, counselors in Connecticut, Texas, Maryland, and California to talk about my new book and how to apply to college in a pandemic, among the most frequently asked question was how college enrollment this year might impact the high school Class of 2021.

In today’s newsletter, we’ll explore what’s happening with enrollment.

? Virtual event: Finding your financial fit in a college. On Sunday, October 25, at 8:30 ET/5:30 PT, I’ll be part of a conversation with Road2College about how to avoid one of the biggest financial mistakes in applying to college: considering costs after getting in rather than before. We’ll be taking a deeper dive on the Buyers and Sellers rubric from the book (more on that below). Joining me will be Kim Clark, former senior writer at Money magazine and John Leach, who heads up financial aid at Emory University.

  • More details and register here.

?Are you a vice president at a college who oversees enrollment management? If so, join me for a small gathering of your counterparts to discuss the future of enrollment on Tuesday, October 20, 6:30 p.m. ET. This conversation is only open to enrollment leaders.

  • To receive access to a link, register here.

The Predictions: Right or Wrong?

As the pandemic wore on over the summer and it became increasingly clear that many campuses would need to go online again in some form, the predictions for enrollment were dire. Some suggested a double-digit percentage decline for enrollment this fall.

  • Conventional wisdom was that students were willing to go online in the spring because they were already on campus when the switch was made.
  • But that wouldn’t be the case if students had to return to online learning in the fall, and certainly not so if they had to start college online.

What happened: In August and September, the enrollment numbers for the fall started rolling in from colleges and they told sometimes conflicting stories.

  • Harvard University reported about 20% ofincoming freshmen deferred their enrollment.
  • Although Harvard is small and ultra-selective, it still tends to drive the media narrative about all of higher education. News about Harvard’s freshman numbers made national headlines, and soon after, I started getting that question about how gap years taken by last year’s high-school seniors might impact this year’s seniors.
  • Then, a few weeks ago, a head-scratching number was released by the National Student Clearinghouse: Undergraduate enrollment was down only 2.5%. So much for those predictions. Maybe Harvard was an outlier.

Yes, but: Buried in the release from the Clearinghouse, which tracks enrollment, was that its analysis included just 22% of institutions in the U.S.

  • This week, the Clearinghouse released updated enrollment figures. This time, there were based on 54% of institutions reporting their fall numbers.
  • And now they were beginning to trend toward those earlier predictions: a 4% decline overall among all undergraduates.

The headline: The newest figures showed the number of college freshmen declined the most — 16% nationwide compared to last fall.

  • Among first-time undergraduates, the largest drop was at community colleges: a decline of 23%.
  • Normally, community colleges see a boom in their enrollment when the economy goes south as unemployed workers go back to school and even 18-year-olds see two-year schools as a cheaper alternative to four-year colleges.
  • This time, unemployed workers might need to assist their kids with remote schooling and are less interested in learning online themselves, especially for associate’s degrees that require hands-on and in-person training, like culinary arts or HVAC and automotive repair.

Context: A few months ago, I thought that new high-school graduates might enroll at their local community college if their four-year residential experience was largely going to be online.

  • What seems to have happened is that those students stuck with their four-year college choice or took the year off.
  • Many community colleges don’t have robust enrollment operations that recruit deep into high schools like four-year colleges do. Rather, they often wait until students come to them.
  • So, would-be college freshmen who over the summer were trying to decide what to do about the fall didn’t think as much about community colleges as an option.

By the numbers: Colleges in 42 states saw declines in their enrollments. The Midwest saw the biggest drop (5.7%), while the Northeast saw the smallest (3.4%).

  • Michigan, Rhode Island, and New Mexico all experienced double-digit percentage declines since last fall.
  • Male enrollment fell more than the number of women — further exacerbating the gender gap in higher education.
  • The number of undergraduate international students, a group that has been a critical revenue source for colleges because they often pay full freight or close to it, fell by a whopping 13.6% over last fall.

Bottom line: On many campuses, the loss of so many first-time students this fall will mean a smaller sophomore class next fall. As a result, many colleges will look to make up that shortfall with a larger-than-usual freshman class next year. In other words, don’t worry if you’re a senior this year about how last year’s graduates might impact your chances for admission.

  • One problem, however, is that statistical models colleges use to predict who will actually show up rely on historical data, and the pandemic and resulting economic downturn may have disrupted the usual patterns.
  • So, look for colleges to accept more students from high schools familiar to them, where enrollment rates have been reliable. That could help colleges hedge their bets amid all the uncertainty.

Read more: Complete report from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Colleges are either “buyers” or “sellers” of spots in the freshman class

Buyers and Sellers

As I get early feedback from readers of the book (keep it coming!), one favorite part seems to be my description of Buyers and Sellers in Chapter 2.

  • Emotions too often steer college choices, and many wind up disappointed when the hoped-for financial aid doesn’t materialize.
  • Many families find themselves making too much to qualify for significant need-based aid but not enough to write a check for tuition — and for four years of it.
  • Sellers are the “haves” of admissions. They are overwhelmed with applications, many from top students, and as a result don’t need to shower discounts on applicants.
  • Buyers are the “have-nots” in terms of admissions — although they might provide an excellent undergraduate education. Rather than select a class, their admissions officers must work hard to recruit students to fill seats, so they offer coupons on tuition called “merit scholarships” no matter your family’s income.
  • Students and their families only find out in April — after acceptances roll in — what they’ll actually have to pay. All too often, this financial reality puts a prestigious acceptance out of reach for students and their families. That can be an even bigger blow than a rejection.
  • That’s why it’s important to have a balanced college list — with both Buyers and Sellers on it.

Read more from Marketwatch.

Buyers and Sellers, a comparison set of 10 schools: Infographic


College Admissions in the Pandemic
Does test-optional really mean optional? Should you apply for early decision? Will your college survive? I answer the most frequently asked questions in an interview with the New York Times. (

Who Owes the Most in Student Loans
Recently released data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances confirm that upper-income households account for a disproportionate share of student loan debt — and an even larger share of monthly out-of-pocket student debt payments. (

Why Skills — and Not Degrees — Will Shape the Future of Work
The world of work is changing fast, and skills are becoming more prized than qualifications. How well companies adapt could define their future success. (

College Admissions is a Business, and the Pandemic Could Upend It
Marketplace is one of my favorite programs on NPR. So it was great to talk with its host, Kai Ryssdal, recently about the business of college admissions as told in “Who Gets In and Why.” (


?Thank you for your support of the book…and because most people find out about books from friends and people they trust, if you enjoyed the book please recommend it to others.

Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...