Undergraduate Enrollment Declines Show No Signs of Recovery From 2020

Undergrads Decline additional 3.2%

Community Colleges Drop 5.6% while Public Four-Year Colleges Fall 2.3%

HERNDON, VA – (Oct. 26, 2021) – According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, fall postsecondary enrollment numbers show no signs of recovery from last year’s declines, according to early data released today in an update to Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information.

With 50.5% of institutions, representing 8.4 million students, reporting to the Clearinghouse as of September 23, undergraduate enrollment continues to decline, falling by 3.2% since fall 2020. This echoes last fall’s drop of 3.4%.

Combined with fall 2020’s declines, the number of undergraduate students has now fallen by a total of 6.5% from two years ago in fall 2019. Graduate student enrollment continued to grow, reaching 2.1% above last year’s level, for a total increase of 5.3% over two years. Overall postsecondary enrollment (undergrad and grad combined) declined by 2.3% this year, for a total two-year decline of 4.6%.

“Far from filling the hole of last year’s enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to see significant nationwide declines in undergraduate students, and community colleges remain the most adversely affected sector, experiencing a 14.1% total enrollment decline since fall 2019.”

Undergraduate enrollment is down in all sectors, particularly among public two- and four-year colleges, and private for-profits. With a lower institutional coverage rate in this early data, however, the for-profit results should be interpreted with caution. Public two-year enrollment continued to slide (-5.6%) although not as sharply as the enrollment shock seen last fall (-9%). Public four-year enrollment, however, has fallen more this fall (-2.3% vs. -0.8% last fall) and private for-profit four-year college enrollment fell precipitously (-12.7%) in contrast to last year’s small drop (-0.3%) (see Figure 1). At primarily online institutions, undergraduate and graduate enrollments dropped by 5.4% and 13.6%, respectively, largely erasing the gains of the previous year (+8.6% last fall for both levels) (see Figure 25).

Meanwhile, undergraduates at private nonprofit four-years fared better, falling only 0.7% this fall. There was a sharp disparity within the sector, however, as the most highly selective institutions grew 4.3% to return to pre-pandemic levels (now +1.8% from two years ago). All other selectivity categories experienced further declines of 1.8% to 2.5 % from last fall. A similar divide emerged among public four-year institutions: Highly selective state flagships increased 1.0% while less selective publics fell 5.2% (see Figure 5).

Nationwide, freshman enrollment has declined 3.1% this fall. While the rate of decline is less than one-third that of the previous fall (-9.5%), it remains far from having stabilized, much less showing the level of increase that would have been required to restore the losses from 2020’s entering class. Public two-year institutions again showed the sharpest freshman enrollment declines among the three largest sectors (-6.1%). This year’s freshman class at community colleges is now 20.8% below 2019’s, while the first-year enrollment numbers at all institutions are 12.3% smaller than in 2019 (see Figure 7).

White, Black, and Native American undergraduates declined more than other racial and ethnic U.S. student groups, each falling between 4.4% and 5.1%. Latinx and Asian students fell at about half those rates (-2.4% and -2.2%, respectively, see Figure 19). Whites and Blacks also showed the largest declines among freshmen (-8.6% and -7.5%, respectively, see Figure 10).

Male and female students saw similar drops this fall in undergraduate enrollment (about -3.5%). Male enrollment declines of -3.5% were smaller than last fall’s (-6.0%), particularly at community colleges (-14.1% last fall vs. -4.7% this fall), whereas female enrollment fell more than last fall (-1.8%), most notably at public four-year colleges (+0.3% last fall vs. -2.3% this fall). Cumulatively, male enrollment decline during the pandemic is now -9.3%, four percentage points steeper than the female decline of -5.3%, over the two years from 2019 to 2021 (see Figures 2 and 18).

Undergraduate enrollment fell for every age group. Declines were steepest among 25- to 29-year-olds (-8.3%). Traditional college-age enrollment (18-24) declined across all sectors (-2.6% for age 18-20; -3.1% for age 21-24). Dual enrollment of high school students increased 0.7 percent nationally after a 3.6 percent drop last fall, but the numbers still deteriorated at community colleges (-0.2% vs. -5.3% last fall), which enroll roughly two-thirds of all dual enrollees (see Figure 17).

Bachelor’s degree-seeking students in the top three common majors (business, health care, and liberal arts) all declined this fall. Notably, students enrolled in health care fields have reversed their gains from last fall (+2.5% last fall vs. -3.6% this fall) (see Figure 21).

The next update to the Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information research that tracks the impact of COVID-19 on postsecondary enrollments is scheduled for late November. As with all Stay Informed releases, today’s data are preliminary and subject to change as more colleges submit their data to the Clearinghouse.

About the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes.

The Research Center currently collects data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97% of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments in degree-granting institutions, as of fall 2019. Clearinghouse data track enrollments nationally and are not limited by institutional and state boundaries. To learn more, visit https://nscresearchcenter.org.

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