Has COVID-19 affected the rate of enrollment of North Dakota high school graduates into college?


Last spring as the pandemic took hold, schools across the country moved from in-person to a remote delivery mode.  And while the transition to remote delivery was fraught with hiccups – which in all honesty were not surprising – in the end the pivot happened, and the process of education continued.  “New Normal” was the new buzzword.

As summer progressed and everyone began to accept the reality that returning to school in the fall would continue to be a mixture of COVID testing, quarantines, and a hybrid of course delivery models, colleges began to focus on fall enrollment.  Would students enrolled during Spring 2020 term return in the fall?  And maybe more critically, would the first-time freshmen enroll at all?  It is understood in higher education that a student who attends college consistently over time is more likely to complete a degree than those who stop out or delay college entry.  Additionally, it is intuitive that the longer a “gap year” drags on, the lower the likelihood of a student reengaging in higher education.

The North Dakota University System (NDUS) made an exceptional pivot in Spring 2020, quickly converting over 11,000 courses across eleven institutions to an online/remote format in a two-week timeframe.  With the arrival of the fall term, students were welcomed back to campus and courses were offered in a newly defined “Hyflex” delivery mode, allowing instructors to flex course delivery among in-person and online delivery modes as the pandemic warranted.

Fall enrollment count in the NDUS indicated an overall decrease in student population from the prior fall of 937 (2.1%) students.  This first glance was not concerning, as the trends over the past several years have shown a decrease in the number of students graduating from high school, and prior to the pandemic the NDUS data staff were predicting a decrease in enrollment over the next few years.  A deeper dive into census demographic data points to the decline in undergraduate enrollment coupled with an increase in graduate enrollment.  This followed a national trend.

It has also been reported nationally that a high number of new high school graduates chose to take a gap year and let the pandemic play out.  To understand whether this pattern of attendance was correct for North Dakota high school graduates, the NDUS partnered with the North Dakota state longitudinal data system (NDSLDS) to investigate whether there was a significant difference in the number of recent North Dakota high school graduates enrolling in NDUS as compared to prior academic years.

The analysis was conducted by North Dakota Information Technology (NDIT) researcher Sam Unruh.  Sam generated a logistic prediction model that controlled for students’ ACT score, GPA, free/reduced lunch eligibility, and English learner status, so that it was possible to attribute any enrollment changes to high school graduation timing rather than changes in study body composition.  Sam’s analysis revealed that the 95% prediction interval for college enrollment for past years was between 49.5% and 54.3% of the total high school graduates.  The actual 2020 fall enrollment was 45.5%, representing that 45.5% of all North Dakota public high school graduates enrolled in one of the eleven NDUS institutions during fall the 2020 term.  Because this year’s enrollment of 45.5% is lower than the typical rate of enrollment (49.5%-54.3%), this is evidence of a modest decrease in enrollment that might be due to the COVID pandemic.

While statistically speaking the results would indicate a significant difference in the Fall 2020 enrollment of recent high school graduates into NDUS than had been observed in prior fall terms, there is a question of causation and practical significance.  Causation is hard to prove, and while we may have seen decreases in enrollment, we cannot without further study even begin to interpret the correlation with the pandemic as causation.  Regarding practical significance, we must consider that the difference between actual and predicted enrollment was small and may be spurious.  In academic research we call these types of conclusions “inconclusive.”

We are used to seeing all sorts of media headlines about significant findings in academic research.  The reality is that most research is less dramatic, if not dull.   While dull, inconclusive does not mean uninformative and this research provides us with some definitive information about the changes in enrollment of North Dakota high school students into NDUS this past fall.  Primarily, we can state that there was no practically significant loss of enrollment even if there is evidence of a modest decrease.  I believe this speaks to the nature of North Dakota residents who see college education as a priority for their children even in pandemic times.

Research results can be accessed in the link provided here.

Thank you to Sam Unruh for his research.


Dr. Jennifer Weber is the Director of the NDUS-IR department.  Her primary functions are to oversee the department and provide system level enrollment reporting to the State Board of Higher Education.  She also oversees system wide IR Shared Services, works closely with the State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) and serves as the state coordinator for federal reporting.   As the NDUS-IR is also contracted through the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI) for data analysis and reporting, the department is ultimately responsible for the data of all students attending public institutions in the state of North Dakota, pre-kindergarten through graduate school.  Jennifer’s passion is educational data privacy, and her current efforts include producing guidelines and advisement for the roles and responsibilities of higher education when applying artificial intelligence/analytics to student data.