Historic Declines in Fall Undergraduate Enrollment Call for Evidence-Based, Equity-Minded Policy Solutions

On October 20, 2020, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE) was presented with analysis of fall undergraduate enrollment trends at Massachusetts public colleges and universities, based on estimated enrollment counts collected by the Department of Higher Education (DHE) in early October. While enrollments had generally been following a predicted decline for several years due to population and demographic changes in the state, the coronavirus pandemic has had a historically significant impact this fall—and has likely impacted students of color and other marginalized students most of all. With this in mind, BHE, DHE, and the campuses are committed to engaging in a thorough, evidence-based, equity-minded approach to policy and budget decisions in FY21 and beyond.

Note: The original estimated figures in this article have been updated with the finalized fall data collected in early 2021.  

Trend at System Level

According to the latest data on fall undergraduate enrollment in the Massachusetts public higher education system, fall 2020 enrollment is down 6.9% from the prior fall, the largest single-year decrease in fall undergraduate enrollment in at least 25 years. Following several years of gradual, expected decline associated with population and demographic changes in the state, undergraduate enrollment this fall fell to 160,595, comparable to the level of the early 2000s.


Trends at Community College, State University and UMass Segment Levels

While undergraduate enrollment in the University of Massachusetts (UMass) segment has held relatively steady this fall, the state university segment is seeing a substantial decrease of 7.7%, or approximately 3,000 students. Most of the decline in the system has occurred in the community college segment, which is experiencing a decline of 11.3% from the prior fall, or approximately 8,600 students. It should be noted that, as this data collection is focused only on degree-seeking students, it excludes students who may be enrolled in community college workforce development and other non-credit programs. It also excludes students who may enroll in courses taking place outside of the traditional semester start date, which is becoming increasingly common in the community colleges.


That said, such significant declines in the degree-seeking population, especially at community colleges which are the point of entry to higher education for so many of the Commonwealth’s African American, Latinx, and other marginalized residents, raises concerns about many students’ college completion goals being delayed or completely disrupted—and questions about what more the Commonwealth can do to support these students. “We know that there is no lack of demand and no lack of need for higher education in the Commonwealth,” said President James Mabry of Middlesex Community College at the BHE meeting. “If we’re going to both serve our students and power this economy, getting those students back in their education and helping them fulfill their dreams is really our mission.”

Trends in First-Time Degree-Seeking (Freshman) Student Population

Across all segments of the public higher education system, the decline in first-year degree-seeking students—essentially the freshman class—is most striking. Across the system, declines in the first-year classes average 16.0%. By institution, these declines range from -1.5% to -43.6%. UMass Boston is an exception, having seen a 5.1% increase in its first-year class size. But for the most part, for students who were faced with the prospect that their first-year experience would be far from the norm experienced by prior classes, many seemed to choose not to enroll. The question is whether these potential students will enroll when the conditions begin returning to the norm or will become a “lost cohort.”


Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, recently spoke to The Hechinger Report about this question, noting:

“These are two very different phenomena. Students at more selective institutions are taking gap years. They’re opting to wait a year because they don’t like the idea of studying online or missing out on a freshman campus experience. Without missing a beat, they’ll be back enrolled next year. But when you consider community college students, they’re much more likely to be from low-income families that have been hard hit by the recession and the pandemic. I think there’s a real risk that they may not be able to come back next year. It could continue for years and affect a whole generation.”

Developing Evidence-Based, Equity-Minded Policy Solutions

Massachusetts public higher education is certainly weathering a storm, and more information is needed to assess the full scope of the coronavirus impact, as well as the policy solutions that would best serve students. Representatives from the community colleges and state universities have cited numerous specific factors that students are commonly sharing as affecting their enrollment decisions, whether they would be first-time or continuing students. These include concerns over personal finances, employment, housing and food insecurity; lack of adequate technology or Internet resources for remote learning; increases in childcare and parenting responsibilities; and the overall, disproportionate impact of the pandemic in lower income communities and communities of color.

Final fall enrollment data will be collected in late December, enabling DHE to release further analysis of enrollment trends by race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, full-time vs. part- time status, and more in early 2021 (Now available—view dashboard). Additional data collection and analysis will also provide a sense of how the pandemic is affecting retention from semester to semester and progress toward completion, overall and for specific populations of students. “Our Board and Department are unified in our approach to be guided by evidence and to proceed with racial equity as our top performance and policy priority,” adds Carlos E. Santiago, Commissioner of Higher Education. “We will work with our campus communities, as well as the Governor, Secretary, Legislature, and other strategic partners, to ensure that budget and policy decisions are made with our students’ needs and goals at the forefront of our minds.”

The original estimated figures in this article have been updated with the finalized fall data collected in early 2021. Data last updated 3/22/2021. View October 2020 version containing estimated enrollment figures >