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2020 Increases in Student Persistence Mask Pandemic Inequities

Three quarters of college students who began their studies during fall 2020—with the pandemic in full swing—remained enrolled at a U.S. institution one year later, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). This represents a 1.1% increase over the previous cohort, whose spring semester was disrupted by the advent of COVID-19, but falls short of the pre-pandemic level of 75.9% persistence.

The report, which is based on data from roughly 97% of American Title IV degree-granting institutions, found that the persistence increase was driven by a rebound in the rate of students transferring to new schools, after a sharp drop in the 2019 cohort. Persistence rates for all major racial and ethnic minority groups except for Native Americans improved after declines in the previous year. Image Asset

However, experts cautioned that the increases obscured a more troubling picture.

“It’s not enough for us to view this recent data and feel comfortable that we have not lost ground during the pandemic,” said Dr. Janet Marling executive director of the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students at the University of North Georgia.

The gains, said Marling and Dr. Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the NSCRC, may be less reflective of successful adjustments to the pandemic by colleges and students than of an unusual student cohort shaped by COVID. Over a quarter-million fewer students enrolled in colleges and universities in fall 2020 compared to the prior year.

Overall, said Ryu, “students who showed up to college in fall 2020 are not as inclusive, not as comprehensive a student cohort as we’ve seen in years prior to the pandemic.”

More than half of the decline in attendance came from a steep decrease in community college enrollment. At community colleges, “many students are coming from underserved backgrounds,” said Ryu. “They tend to have more financial needs and academic support needs that could translate into a higher likelihood to stop out of college. So having fewer students from these backgrounds could mean an increasing first-year persistence rate.”

Although persistence rates did increase for almost every racial and ethnic minority group, the numbers did not rebound to pre-pandemic levels. Although Latinx persistence increased by 0.7%, it was not nearly enough to compensate for the 2.6% decline from the fall 2019 cohort. And despite the increases in rates, the overall drop in attendance meant that the raw number of persisting students from each group fell.

The improved transfer rates may also be misleading.

“The students who transferred were traditionally-aged, they were moving from two-year to four-year institutions and were crossing state lines,” said Marling. “So, that tells us that these were students who had started on a trajectory towards transfer before the pandemic and stayed on it.”

Non-traditional students, who might not have been able to transfer for financial or logistical reasons during the pandemic, may have left school or not enrolled to begin with. 

“I think the untold story is just the students who had not engaged in higher education [during the pandemic],” said Marling. “And that's where we find these racially minoritized students, our first-generation students and our low-income students. It’s lost human potential and a decreased opportunity to close the racial attainment gaps and economic gaps. We’re widening those disparities.”

And they may not narrow anytime soon. According to Ryu, this year’s increases, however small or illusory, may not persist due to a decline in transfers from two-year to four-year institutions that began in fall 2021.

“I’m not too optimistic [about] how quickly we [will] be able to rebound and reach the pre-pandemic patterns,” she said. “It’s going to take us a while to see any undoing of this pandemic-related impact. It’s going to take years, if that ever happens.”

In the meanwhile, Marling preached caution.

“We need to ensure that we aren't leaving our most vulnerable populations behind and celebrating too quickly,” she said.

















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