Are these data meaningful anymore?


“*” will soon appear on many statistics. For the sports fan looking at stats, the NHL and NBA seasons ended early, making season stats incomparable with prior seasons, not to mention that neither league may crown a champion this year. 

Likewise, student enrollments and attendance in colleges have significantly changed since April. The COVID-19 pandemic will affect reporting and historical trends in many data collections, leading some to speculate that data are no longer meaningful. I believe that it is perhaps even more important that data are collected during this time. 

A principal source of national data on postsecondary institutions and their students is the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NCES collects annual institutional-level census data through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and student-level data through periodic sample surveys, such as the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) longitudinal survey and Baccalaureate and Beyond (B&B) longitudinal survey.

Taken together, these data help provide a rich understanding of current and historical trends of postsecondary education institutions, who attends these institutions and the trajectory of students through these institutions. 

Trends to watch

The pandemic has radically changed the way students interact with postsecondary education at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, and it will impact many aspects of data, based on how they have historically been collected. These effects will not be consistent across all data and will create challenges for interpreting these data.

For example, the shift to online exclusive course offerings differentially affected students based on their ability to transition to online classes and the ability of colleges to offer classes online. As a result, students enrolled in career and technical education (CTE) programs with hands-on training requirements couldn’t complete classes in the spring, which will lead to fewer credential completions reported among these programs. 

Likewise, students who couldn’t transition to taking classes online due to personal or technological challenges will likely have lower completion rates. As a result, the trend in completions by race and ethnicity within programs will be an important marker to understand the extent that COVID-19 may have had across historically underserved populations.

Effects on enrollment

Enrollment trends will also be an important indicator of how the pandemic affected students’ choice of colleges. The impact on the 2019-20 academic year enrollments reported in IPEDS may be modest; however, where students attend this fall will provide a key insight into COVID-19’s influence on returning students, as well as students beginning their postsecondary experience. 

An example of the value of trend data was recently shared in a Community College Research Center (CCRC) blog post. Researchers examined the trend in enrollments across sectors following the Great Recession to assess the potential impact of COVID-19 on community college enrollments this fall and subsequent terms.

This fall, IPEDS will collect data on enrollments across all sectors by race and ethnicity, by residence of students, distance education enrollment, and whether the student is attending college for the first time after high school.

Taken together, these data will provide rich understanding, when compared to prior enrollment cycles, of how and where students attend in this fall.

Related article: COVID-19’s impact on community college research

The sample surveys provide one of the richest sources of student-level data. The NPSAS, conducted every four years, is on cycle to collect data now. NCES is currently collecting student data for NPSAS, and it adapted the survey to add several items targeted to assess the impact of COVID-19 on students attending postsecondary institutions.

A subsample of the current NPSAS sample is first-time-in-college students, and NCES will track those students for five years, allowing a richer understanding of the trajectory of students who began their education in the 2019-20 academic year and their subsequent enrollments.

Waiting for the data

Although the current data collections will require an asterisk next to them, they will provide an invaluable insight into some of the ways that COVID-19 has altered colleges and the student experience in higher education. Unfortunately, these data will not be available for several years, delaying a deeper understanding of the impact. 

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center will provide an earlier indication of the coronavirus’ impact. The center releases a fall and spring enrollment report near the end of each term. These data will be available late in 2020 to provide an early view of changes in fall 2020 enrollments as a result of COVID-19. 

NSC Research Center also plans to release a special report next month designed to show enrollment status changes during the spring term to estimate the effects of the pandemic.

In short, the data will need to be viewed with an appropriate awareness of the context (the asterisk), but will provide a vital insight into how student behavior changed as a result of the pandemic.

About the Author

Kent Phillippe
Kent Phillippe is vice president for research and student success at the American Association of Community Colleges. He is project director for the Equity Transfer Initiative.