Four-Year Colleges with the Highest Enrollment Growth During COVID-19
Written by: Taylor Nichols
Published: December 17, 2021
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
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.
Four-Year Colleges with the Biggest Enrollment Boosts in Fall 2020
Fall 2019 Enrollment
Fall 2020 Enrollment
University of the People California
Central State University Ohio
Chamberlain University - Texas Texas
Mount Aloysius College Pennsylvania
Bethel University - Tennessee Tennessee
Aspen University Colorado
American InterContinental University Arizona
Post University Connecticut
Nevada State College Nevada
Roosevelt University Illinois
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University - Daytona Beach Florida
The Master's University California
Rockhurst University Missouri
Maryville University Missouri
Johnson & Wales University-Online Rhode Island
Campbellsville University Kentucky
Fort Valley State University Georgia
DeVry University - Illinois Illinois
College of Mount Saint Vincent New York
Howard University District of Columbia
Southern New Hampshire University New Hampshire
CUNY Graduate School and University Center New York
Saint Thomas University Florida
Mid-America Christian University Oklahoma
West Coast University - Miami Florida
Top 10 Four-Year Colleges with the Highest Enrollment Growth During COVID-19
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.
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.
Chamberlain University - Texas
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.
Mount Aloysius College
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.
Bethel University - Tennessee
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.