Exploring Key Indicators of Education During the Pandemic

Teacher with smiling young students

The National Center for Education Statistics annual report, the Condition of Education, provides insight into how the U.S. education system has changed over time, the characteristics of students and teachers, and how the U.S. compares with other nations around the world. The 2022 edition of the report is the first to include data showing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education. It also includes two new spotlights written by AIR staff on homeschooling and fall enrollment plans for postsecondary education. For more than 15 years, AIR has provided technical and editorial support for this congressionally mandated report.

To learn more about the Condition of Education, read the latest press release & FAQ. The Condition of Education is available on the NCES website where the full report, highlights, and spotlights can be downloaded. 

In this Q&A, AIR Researcher Ke Wang, an author of the Condition of Education, explains key findings from the report and discusses vital takeaways for parents, educators, and policymakers.

Q: What are the most important takeaways from this year’s report?

Wang: For the first time this year, we were able to see the results of the pandemic through our data, which cover 2019 to 2020. In terms of school enrollment, we saw a relatively significant dip in the preprimary enrollment, or school enrollment rates of children between three- and five-years-old. For instance, five-year-old enrollment decreased from 91 percent to 84 percent between 2019 and 2020, the first year of the pandemic. For three- to four-year-olds, we see a larger dip, from 54 percent to 40 percent. This is not surprising, but still alarming.

Enrollment Rates of Young Children

We also saw a dip in public school enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2020. Public school enrollment tends to be relatively stable because to some extent it reflects changes in the population. But from fall 2019 to fall 2020, we saw a 3 percent drop, which brought the U.S. total enrollment back more than a decade to 2009 levels. Many of the students who left probably have gone into alternative schooling or homeschooling. At the postsecondary enrollment level, there was a decrease in undergraduate enrollment, but interestingly, an increase at the graduate level. 

I think educators and policymakers will spend some time thinking about where these public school students have gone. Will enrollment increase back to pre-pandemic levels once we have recovered? Those are things that future data collections will tell us.

Q: What are the future implications for children who did not attend formal schooling for preschool or kindergarten?

Will enrollment increase back to pre-pandemic levels once we have recovered? Those are things that future data collections will tell us.

Wang: There's a large body of research showing that children's lifelong wellbeing is positively associated with early childhood services, and a huge part of early childhood services would include formal schooling options, such as preschool and kindergarten. There are now fewer students participating in formal schooling options during their early childhood years. I think that it would be pretty interesting to see how this cohort of students who are impacted by the pandemic fare long term, compared with, say, students who were in the same cohort but did participate in formal schooling during these early childhood years.

Q: What does the report have to say about the pandemic’s effect on postsecondary education?

Wang: AIR staff authored a summary of data about how the pandemic impacted students’ postsecondary plans. For that particular spotlight indicator, we used data from the Household Pulse survey, which is collected by the Census Bureau. Respondents are adults who are 18 years and older; these adults were asked to report on the postsecondary status of their other household members. Students are not directly interviewed unless the respondent is also a postsecondary student themselves.

From the data, we see that even in fall 2021, more than a year after the pandemic started in the U.S., a majority (56 percent) of adults, still reported that there were some changes to the postsecondary plans for at least one of their household members. Conversely, that means the other 44 percent reported that there was no change for any household members in terms of postsecondary plans. That is an improvement; a year prior, fall 2020, just 28 percent reported no change. 

The data also show that about 16 percent of adults reported a member of their family cancelled all plans to take classes in fall 2021. That is a tremendous amount of people who are affected in a very significant way even in the second year of the pandemic.

For survey respondents who said that all postsecondary plans were cancelled for a household member, we saw that the most frequently cited reason is financial hindrance, or the inability to pay for classes or educational expenses because of changes to income from the pandemic.