Hoped-for gap year enrollment boom turns out to be a bust

Dive Brief: 

  • Just 2% of students who graduated from high school in 2020 and didn’t immediately attend college ended up enrolling a year later this fall, dashing hopes that the large number of students who opted out of higher ed in the pandemic’s first year would enroll in 2021.
  • Those figures are according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which found the overall gap year enrollment rate for the class of 2020 dropped slightly compared to previous classes, from 2.6% in 2018 and 2.2% in 2019. 
  • The report also confirms preliminary research from March, which showed that lower shares of the 2020 high school graduating class immediately enrolled in college compared to the previous year’s cohort. Their enrollment rates dropped by 4 to 10 percentage points depending on high school type.

Dive Insight: 

The report heaps more bad news onto the higher education sector, which has seen undergraduate enrollment fall steeply for two years in a row. Many college officials had hoped that recent high school graduates who opted out of college in the pandemic’s first year would instead enroll this fall, but no upswing in gap year students materialized. 

“These findings are reinforcing what has been known for years in the research field,” said Mikyung Ryu, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s director of research publications. That is, the further high school graduates are from directly enrolling in college, the more difficult it is to get them back on track. 

That will likely have long-term ramifications for graduates who opt to go right into the job market instead of college. They may find themselves in jobs without much opportunity for promotion, Ryu said. Enrolling in college later in life could pose challenges, too. 

“By then, when they try to apply for college, probably their academic preparedness is not as great as it might have been,” Ryu said. That could lead them to need remedial classes, prolonging their time in college.

The report also adds to research suggesting the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating existing inequities across racial groups and income levels. 

High-poverty high schools, where at least 75% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, saw immediate college enrollment rates drop from 55% in 2019 to 45% in 2020. Meanwhile, low-poverty high schools, where no more than 25% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, saw rates fall from 77% in 2019 to 74% in 2020. The gap in the immediate enrollment rate between those school types widened from 22 percentage points in 2019 to 28 percentage points in 2020. 

At high-minority schools — where at least 40% of the student population is Black or Hispanic — 52% of graduates immediately went to college in 2020, compared to 64% of graduates at low-minority schools. The gap between those schools was similar to last year’s divide, growing by only 1 percentage point in 2020.

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