College enrollments saw steep 5.9% decline in spring

Community colleges continue yearlong fall, raising concern for National Student Clearinghouse Research Center officials.
By: | April 29, 2021
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The downward enrollment spiral experienced by higher education institutions throughout 2020 has continued into 2021. Despite many more colleges and universities reopening for in-person learning and the promise of more to come in the fall, this spring’s numbers were among the worst in this arduous, unforgiving year.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on Thursday noted that spring enrollment numbers plummeted 5.9% from the same period in 2020. All told, the overall enrollment drops for the past year stand at 4.2%.

Those figures were punctuated by the surprising and continued struggles of community colleges to attract students. During the spring period, there was an 11.3% decline in enrollment by associate’s degree seekers.

“The continuing slide in community college enrollments is of great concern,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “In a sign of potentially long-lasting impact on the level of skills and credentials in the workforce, there is still no age group showing increases at community colleges, even after a full year of pandemic and related unemployment.”

The biggest disparities were reflected in the 18-20 age bracket, which saw a 14.6% drop at community colleges. That group of students, the largest among the undergraduate pool, dropped more than 7% overall during the spring.

On the flip side, older students have helped increase enrollment in graduate programs, which has seen a rise of 4.4% since last March. With more than 75% of institutions (covering 12.6 million students) reporting their numbers this spring, the increases have been monumental given the environment:

  • Master’s degree enrollments are up 4%
  • Doctoral degree candidates have increased by 8% as did those pursuing doctorates in education
  • MBA enrollments rose to 7.6% after a 0.5% decline last spring
  • Science and engineering master’s enrollments are up 3.3%
  • Master’s graduate programs in education jumped from -1.4% in 2020 to 3.7% in 2021

Online institutions also did well, enjoying slight increases from the fall of last year, insulated perhaps still by students preferring to remain at home but also buoyed by added flexibility for those balancing work and their studies.

Those data were tempered by the results from other sectors.

Bachelor’s degree seekers fell 2.2%, a number that has remained fairly steady throughout the year and in most of the Clearinghouse’s updates.

White, Black and Latinx student enrollments fell by 8.5%, 8.8% and 7.3%, respectively. Asian student numbers also dipped by almost 5%. The hardest hit undergrads at four-year colleges were Native Americans (-13%), and Latinx student enrollment dipped 13.7% at community colleges. The Clearinghouse noted female student enrollments continue to outpace the men across higher education, except at online institutions.

As for individual majors and credentials, psychology and computer sciences remained positive despite small drops from 2020. Biological and biomedical sciences experienced growth in enrollment, as did business, marketing and education. Liberal arts, social sciences and visual and performing arts experienced steep declines.

None of the associate’s degree credentials or majors did well. Health professions was the lone category to experience only slight drops. The hardest hit were security and protective services, visual and performing arts, liberal arts and psychology.

The states that did the best this spring in terms of undergraduate enrollment – and the only ones to record very slight positive numbers among undergraduates – were Nebraska, Utah and West Virginia. The states of Alaska, Delaware, New Mexico, Oregon, and South Dakota all experienced double-digit declines.

Meanwhile, graduate enrollment spiked in Mississippi (+18.8%), Virginia (+12.6%) and West Virginia (+11.7%) as most states enjoyed positive outcomes. Alaska, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and New York were the lone states to post negative numbers.