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First year college enrollment has dropped 16% overall this year.

Credit: Stephanie Jungyeon Nam

Enrollment for first-year students has dropped significantly at colleges across the country in the wake of COVID-19, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found.

First-year enrollment has dropped 16% overall and nearly 25% at community colleges, The New York Times reported. First years currently account for 69% of the overall 4% drop in college enrollment. The shift comes as many universities have moved classes online or declined to invite most or all students back to campus due to the pandemic.

Higher education experts say the drop is most likely to affect Black, Latinx, and low-income students who are more likely to attend the community colleges that have seen the largest decrease in first year enrollment, the Times reported. 

Many students may have felt that their college will not do enough to protect them from contracting COVID-19, the Times reported. At SUNY Oneonta, which opted to bring students back to campus, 700 students tested positive before the campus was closed again.

Students who take gap years or time off from their college education may be less likely to return and complete their degrees, the Times reported.

Penn’s enrollment has remained consistent in recent years, and the University has not needed to admit more students off the waitlist for the Class of 2024, Penn Dean of Admissions Eric Furda told The Daily Pennsylvanian in May.

An unusually high number of first-year students, however, have chosen to take gap years. Two hundred students in the Class of 2024 opted to take a gap year this year, compared to approximately 50 in a typical year.

This trend has occurred at other Ivy League universities as well. Twenty percent of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University opted to defer their admission until fall 2021. Yale University also saw a record high number of gap years for the Class of 2024.

More than 178,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported by colleges in the United States, according to a database by the Times. Penn has reported 257 cases since Aug. 1.