With enrollment numbers still plummeting, how can higher ed rebound?

If early data holds up, the two-year decline since the pandemic started may be historic.

There have been signs of pandemic recovery all over higher education – fully open campuses, rising vaccinations and fewer COVID-19 outbreaks – but student enrollment still hasn’t made a comeback.

With half of institutions reporting numbers for the fall, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data shows enrollment has fallen another 3.2%, for a two-year decline of around 6.5%. That would be the largest drop in 50 years by a wide margin.

“Enrollments are not getting better. They’re still getting worse,” said Doug Shapiro, “The previous worst two-year period was a 3.3% decline from 2011 to 2013. And as you know, that’s when we were coming off of all-time highs from the Great Recession. So those declines weren’t weren’t quite so painful. These declines that we’re seeing today are from an already depressed level of enrollment.”

The steepest dropoff this year is being felt at private for-profits, whose enrollments have tumbled nearly 13% for 2021. Two-year institutions, meanwhile, have seen a 5.6% dive this fall and have plummeted 14% since the start of the pandemic.

“Just like we saw last year, it’s again the community colleges taking the brunt of the declines,” Shapiro said. “And these are the students who would normally be enrolling in droves during a recession. Why for-profits held on to their students last year and suddenly are down this year, I don’t know.”

The news wasn’t great for any sector. Public four-year institutions fell another 2.3% after losing 0.8% last academic year, and private nonprofits experienced another 0.7% decline, in addition to the 0.5% drop in fall 2020.

The saving grace for many was again a spike in graduate enrollment – public four-years (+4.3%), private nonprofit four-years (+0.5%) and two-year institutions (+2.1%). Highly selective institutions also fared better than very competitive or competitive public and private four-year institutions. The least selective public colleges, however, got hammered again, and will lose a projected 5.2% in enrollment.

The overall declines gave Shapiro pause as he weighed the magnitude of the data on the future of these students.

“When, or if ever, will some of the students who we’ve lost in the last two years get back into the educational pipeline?” Shapiro wondered. “A lot of young people seem to be going to work instead of going to college, especially students from low-income families who have been lured away by this temporary hitch in the labor market, where wages are increasing. These are the students who have always been the most on the margin between college and the workforce. Trying to understand how those students might ever get back into the college path is really important.”

Inside the numbers

The Clearinghouse says the impact of the pandemic is not only being seen in current enrollment data, but also retention rates and in the six-year graduation rates of those who entered. They said it is highly likely that completion rates in the near future will be impacted by these drop-offs.

One of the groups most affected by the pandemic – and in turn, the institutions they attend – have been international students. They dropped another 8.2% because of COVID-19 restrictions still impacting countries, particularly in the Far East. In two years, the number of international students has fallen a staggering 21%. International graduate students, however, did increase more than 13% after losing nearly 9% in fall 2020.

“We didn’t expect to see any increase there,” Shapiro said. “But I think to see a further 8% decline on top of last year’s 14% is going to be of great concern to many institutions that enroll large numbers of international students.”

There were other notable data points from the preliminary report:

  • Of the credentials being pursued, undergraduate certificates increased 0.5% after falling nearly 9% last year, while graduate certificates, master’s degrees, professional degrees and doctoral degrees all increased by around 2%. Associate and bachelor’s degree seekers, however, fell at 6.6% and 1.9%, respectively.
  • The number of women enrolling fell the same as men this year at around 3.5%. Men sustained steeper drops last year.
  • All regions saw declines, but Western states saw more significant drops (-4.4%) than the rest of the nation, though institutions from three (Oregon, Montana and Wyoming) still haven’t reported their numbers. The state with the biggest jump was New Hampshire (+7.2), while the state with the sharpest decline was West Virginia (-10%).
  • Most of the demographic numbers in terms of race and ethnicity fell less than sharply than in the fall 2020, but all of them dropped. The most affected in 2021 are Blacks (-5.1%), Whites (4.8%) and Native Americans (-4.4%). Latinx and Asian students declined just over 2%.
  • Among undergraduate students, no majors were immune from the freefall, and a couple were shocking. Health professions and clinical sciences saw the largest drop at 3.3% after gaining nearly 2.5% in fall 2020. Liberal arts dropped another 3.2%, and engineering tumbled 2.9%. Business management, marketing and biomed saw only slight drops.

“Some of these are just perplexing,” Shapiro said. “Much of this, particularly at the community colleges, is very much focused more on the types of programs that lead more directly to work to workforce or employment gains. That can explain the drop in liberal arts. Health professions is a mystery.”

Among those seeking master’s degrees, computer and information sciences is far and away drawing the most interest at +28%.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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