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Four-Year Colleges with the Highest Enrollment Growth During COVID-19

Taylor Nichols Written by: Taylor Nichols
Published: December 17, 2021

Key Insights:

  • While national college enrollment dropped in 2020, online schools saw boosts during COVID-19
  • New data shows which colleges had the highest enrollment growth in fall 2020
  • Tuition-free online school University of the People had a 671% enrollment increase, the highest of any school
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The COVID-19 pandemic hit higher education hard last year, with enrollment declines making headlines across the country. Both four-year and community colleges had significant enrollment drops nationally, with a 4.5% decline for undergraduate students in 2020, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

While fewer students enrolled in college overall during COVID-19, the National Student Clearinghouse data shows increased interest in online schools. Undergraduate enrollment numbers for primarily online institutions jumped nearly 2% in fall 2020.

We took a look at the four-year colleges with the highest enrollment growth in fall 2020 to get a better sense of enrollment trends during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This list of the 25 four-year colleges with the largest enrollment increases includes:

  • Six for-profit institutions
  • Four public colleges
  • 15 private nonprofit schools
  • Nine primarily online colleges (at least 50% enrolled online pre-pandemic)

Schools that saw the most growth include some prominent online colleges we expected to see — Southern New Hampshire University, for example, saw significant gains last year. However, other well-known online schools, such as the University of Phoenix, didn't see the same enrollment jumps.

Notably, tuition-free online school University of the People saw a 671% increase, growing their undergraduate enrollment by nearly 30,000 students last fall.

We limited our study to four-year institutions with at least 1,000 students in fall 2019 to understand how the coronavirus pandemic impacted mid-sized universities.

Read: Four-Year Colleges with the Largest Enrollment Declines During COVID-19

Four-Year Colleges with the Biggest Enrollment Boosts in Fall 2020

School Fall 2019 Enrollment Fall 2020 Enrollment Absolute Change Percent Change
University of the People 
 California
4,424 34,108 29,684 670.98%
Central State University 
 Ohio
2,033 4,021 1,988 97.79%
Chamberlain University - Texas 
 Texas
1,002 1,558 556 55.49%
Mount Aloysius College 
 Pennsylvania
1,791 2,770 979 54.66%
Bethel University - Tennessee 
 Tennessee
2,358 3,457 1,099 46.61%
Aspen University 
 Colorado
4,537 6,399 1,862 41.04%
American InterContinental University 
 Arizona
9,153 12,830 3,677 40.17%
Post University 
 Connecticut
9,729 12,848 3,119 32.06%
Nevada State College 
 Nevada
5,531 7,218 1,687 30.50%
Roosevelt University 
 Illinois
2,381 3,068 687 28.85%
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University - Daytona Beach 
 Florida
6,402 8,155 1,753 27.38%
The Master's University 
 California
1,305 1,649 344 26.36%
Rockhurst University 
 Missouri
2,185 2,746 561 25.68%
Maryville University 
 Missouri
4,454 5,504 1,050 23.57%
Johnson & Wales University-Online 
 Rhode Island
1,070 1,318 248 23.18%
Campbellsville University 
 Kentucky
4,740 5,794 1,054 22.24%
Fort Valley State University 
 Georgia
2,293 2,794 501 21.85%
DeVry University - Illinois 
 Illinois
14,163 17,174 3,011 21.26%
College of Mount Saint Vincent 
 New York
1,867 2,257 390 20.89%
Howard University 
 District of Columbia
6,526 7,857 1,331 20.40%
Southern New Hampshire University 
 New Hampshire
92,902 111,599 18,697 20.13%
CUNY Graduate School and University Center 
 New York
2,498 2,973 475 19.02%
Saint Thomas University 
 Florida
3,100 3,670 570 18.39%
Mid-America Christian University 
 Oklahoma
1,353 1,600 1,600 18.26%
West Coast University - Miami 
 Florida
1,010 1,194 184 18.22%

Top 10 Four-Year Colleges with the Highest Enrollment Growth During COVID-19

1.

University of the People

  • Tuition for the 2020-21 school year: $1,000

Tuition-free online school University of the People saw a whopping 671% increase in enrollment from fall 2019 to 2020. The accredited non-profit college gained more than 29,000 students, with total undergraduate student enrollment at 34,108 in fall last year. Students do not pay tuition but do pay a small testing fee at the end of each course.

2.

Central State University

  • Tuition: $8,726 out-of-state

Undergraduate enrollment nearly doubled in fall 2020 at HBCU Central State University in Ohio. The public institution gained just under 2,000 students. Central State serves a mix of online and campus-based students, with close to half enrolled in some distance education courses and 15% enrolled completely online for the 2019-20 school year.

3.

Chamberlain University - Texas

  • Tuition: $19,375

Nursing college Chamberlain University in Texas saw a 55% increase in enrollment, with 556 more students enrolling in fall 2020 than the fall semester the year before. The university offers accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs at three locations in Texas, with 81% of students enrolled in some distance education courses during the 2019-20 school year.

4.

Mount Aloysius College

  • Tuition: $23,680

Mount Aloysius, a private institution in Pennsylvania, saw a 55% increase in enrollment with 979 more students in fall 2020 than in fall 2019. The university largely serves students on campus, with two-thirds enrolled in no distance education programs for the 2019-20 school year.

5.

Bethel University - Tennessee

  • Tuition: $17,010

Private Christian college Bethel University saw a 47% increase in enrollment, gaining 1,099 more students in fall 2020 than enrolled in fall 2019. Over half (54%) of Bethel undergraduates were enrolled fully online in the 2019-20 school year.

6.

Aspen University

  • Tuition: $3,920

For-profit online school Aspen University saw a 41% jump in enrollment in fall 2020, up nearly 2,000 students from the year before. Aspen is an online school with 100% of students enrolled in some or all distance education courses.

7.

American InterContinental University

American InterContinental University, another for-profit online school, had a 40% increase in undergraduate enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020. The university has a 100% enrollment rate in distance education programs and does not offer campus-based options.

8.

Post University

Private for-profit Post University saw a 32% jump in enrollment in fall 2020, up more than 3,000 students from fall 2019. The Connecticut college offers on-campus programs, but 95% of its student population is enrolled online.

9.

Nevada State College

  • Tuition: $18,162 out-of-state

Public school Nevada State College had a 30.5% enrollment boost in fall 2020, with 7,218 undergraduate students enrolling for the 2020-21 school year compared to 5,531 the year before. The college offers a mix of in-person and distance education programs, with 19% of students enrolled fully online and 40% enrolled in no distance education for the 2019-20 school year.

10.

Roosevelt University

  • Tuition: $30,876

Private school Roosevelt University in Chicago grew enrollment by nearly 29% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, gaining just under 700 students. The university serves a majority of students on campus, with only 5% enrolling fully online. This could be due in part to demand for its real estate program, which reportedly has been driving enrollment growth since its launch three years ago.

Takeaways

Many of the colleges on this list serve a high rate of online students and have characteristics common in online offerings — lower tuition rates than many other universities, career-focused programs in high-demand fields, and accelerated degree options, to name a few.

These findings speak to the impact that the pandemic had on students' decisions about college and suggest a growing trend in the public perception of online degrees as a viable education option rather than an alternative. It also may highlight changing education needs for the workforce as thousands of people reskill for new careers in light of the changing economic landscape.

Correction note: Arizona State University - Campus Immersion changed its reporting structure in 2021, encompassing additional campuses in the fall 2020 enrollment numbers that were not included in 2019. As a result, enrollment growth rate calculations were incorrect. It has been removed from this list to correct that error.


Methodology

We limited our study to postsecondary institutions with at least 1,000 undergraduate students enrolled in Fall 2019 that graduated primarily baccalaureate students or higher in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. Once these limitations were applied, the data resulted in a total of 1,294 schools. Enrollment numbers are for total undergraduate student enrollment in fall 2019 and fall 2020. All data comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) from the U.S. Department of Education.

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