College enrollment numbers show further declines

The latest National Student Clearinghouse report shows steep drops at community colleges.

The latest update from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center paints a much clearer and much less positive outlook of enrollment this fall at colleges and universities.

The new report released on Thursday shows that declines in undergraduate enrollment are worse than first thought – a drop from 4% in October numbers to 4.4%, according to Clearinghouse data in November’s study.

With millions more added to the pool from initial findings – now at 13.6 million students and 76% of institutions reporting – the Center noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled a drop of 13% year over year in first-time students enrolling, including steep declines among Native Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics.

For those with a penchant to focus on the positive, the Clearinghouse pointed out that there was a change upward in graduate enrollment data – it showed an increase from 2019 of 2.9% (previous reports had it at 2.7%). The overall drop at four-year public and private institutions might not be as severe as expected from early in the pandemic, at -2% overall. And online institutions seem to be particularly insulated from the big shift to remote instruction and students working from home, many boosting their numbers.

However, other institutions, particularly community colleges, have been hit very hard, with enrollment numbers showing a nearly 10% decline. Historically Black Colleges and Universities have reported a 5.5% drop overall. Even the for-profits, which had shown a 3% increase in early reporting numbers, have fallen back to earth in the latest numbers and are down .1%.

“The big picture remains the same after the inclusion of data for an additional 4.4 million students,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “The latest data update shows community colleges and freshmen continuing to show the steepest drops in enrollment, while the declines among undergraduates generally have deepened.”

The most staggering statistic: Enrollment among Native Americans, Blacks and Hispanic freshman at community colleges is down almost 30% … while Whites and Asians saw declines of around 19%. In the previous report in 2019, Hispanic enrollment had actually increased 3.2%. International students also saw a dramatic dip at -14.9%.

“The divide is becoming more clear,” Shapiro said.

When it comes to age groups, several patterns have emerged. Previous increases enjoyed with those ages 17-20 have now been replaced by negative numbers around -4%. The number of men ages 25 and over enrolling has dropped twice as much as before the pandemic. Men in all subgroups have been enrolling far less than women – nearly 2 to 1 – at two-year institutions.

At the regional levels, the Midwest has been the hardest hit of any area, with a 5.7% overall decline. The West, Northeast and South all showed declines in the 3.8%-4.7% range.

Some states were more immune than others from enrollment dips. Idaho, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Utah and West Virginia showed increases, though individual institutions may not have been insulated. By contrast, South Dakota saw a steep 12.4% decline, and colleges in New Mexico, Alaska and Indiana all experienced a total drop of more than 9% in enrollments.

Where has graduate enrollment increased the most? Mississippi at +17.9%.

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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