Pandemic fallout: Colorado college attendance rate drops

The pace at which Colorado students go to college right out of high school has plummeted, and those who do go are less prepared. And participation in programs offering a high school college experience has remained stagnant.

These takeaways detailed in the state recent annual look at the state’s higher education progress offer a better view of trends influenced by the pandemic. The May report, reflecting the high school class of 2020, serves as an annual benchmark on public higher education.

This is the first year the report has shown the impact of the pandemic on students. The report examines issues that threaten the state’s progress toward the goal of getting more residents equipped with a college certificate or degree. Here are three takeaways from the recent Post-Secondary Progress Report.

Student participation in first university opportunities remained stable

The good news: Students across the state regularly participated in college opportunities while in high school. But these figures do not yet show the impact of the pandemic.

Many students were already enrolled in college-level classes in 2020 before the pandemic began. The figures, however, reflect the struggle to maintain the progress made over the past decade in students participating in dual enrollment, career education and early college opportunities. Overall, participation has slowed or even stagnated.

College-level programs not only expose students to college, but also save them money by earning credits often without paying tuition.

About 72% of Colorado high school students enrolled in career education courses, 42% enrolled in college courses while in high school, and 3.8% graduated from high school with a certificate or a university degree. Those rates barely budged from 2019 to 2020.

The report says the state will need to increase the number of students of color participating in these opportunities to create more equitable outcomes, as Hispanic and Black students lag in participation.

The enrollment rate of students in university right out of high school

After the pandemic began, college leaders reported declining enrollment. Students reported losing learning time due to distance education, worrying more about college costs, and reporting feeling burnt out as reasons they were less likely to complete their studies.

The report reaffirms that the pandemic, from its earliest stages, has upended university attendance patterns. The state rate students who go to university straight out of high school in 2020 fell to 50.5%, down five points from 2019.

The decline affected all groups of students, according to the report. College education among rural students dropped to 46%. slightly lower than that of the general population.

A total of 29,136 2020 Colorado high school graduates did not complete a college diploma program in high school or did not enroll in higher education.

Students are not as academically prepared

The students introduce themselves unprepared for college-level work due to their disrupted pandemic education is a nationwide trend. Colorado is no exception.

The report shows a seven-point increase in the proportion of students needing remedial courses at four-year universities, from around 21% to 28%. At community colleges, however, the rate has dropped to 35% from 41% previously.

Every demographic was expected to catch up in college to some degree, but black and Hispanic students continued to be twice as likely to need additional coursework compared to their peers, the report said.

In total, about 30% of first-year college students were placed in developmental education classes. About 27% of students need to strengthen their math skills, while about 12% need to strengthen their English skills.

For years, the proportion of students needing additional education to prepare for college has plummeted. It is partly thanks to statewide changes that have ended remedial classes that don’t lead to credits and more support for students who need to catch up.

But the declines are a worrying sign for college completion, as students who need development education classes are less likely to continue on to college.

Jason Gonzales is a journalist covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at

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