Higher education down 1 million undergrads since 2019 after more declines

New Clearinghouse report shows public and private nonprofits are still struggling to bring back students during the pandemic.

With declines this fall, higher education is now down 1 million undergraduates since 2019.

More than a half-dozen significant headlines have emerged from today’s release of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s report on 2021 college student enrollment. Among them:

  • The great student comeback, expected in fall 2021, has not arrived yet, with losses continuing across major sectors.
  • Private, for-profit colleges continue to struggle, performing the worst of all of them at -9.3% this year.
  • Two-year colleges and freshman enrollee numbers, ravaged over the past year and a half, appear to be better than last year.

But perhaps the most telling statistic is that higher education has lost more than one million undergraduate students since the start of 2019, or just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope that this year would bring better returns is waning. Enrollment numbers are down 2.7% overall from 2020 figures, which is even worse than the 2.5% loss posted lost year. Although the 2020 fall data did improve slightly by spring, 74% of institutions already have entered their data this year.

“Our final look at fall 2021 enrollment shows undergraduates continuing to sit out in droves as colleges navigate yet another year of COVID-19,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Without a dramatic re-engagement in their education, the potential loss to these students’ earnings and futures is significant, which will greatly impact the nation as a whole in years to come.”

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Public four-year institution enrollment has fallen 3% this year after making the slightest of gains in 2020, while private four-year nonprofits are down 1.6% after level returns in 2020. Private for-profits had an amazing 2020 at +5% but are getting torched this year, according to the data, losing more than 70,000 students. Many of those are in the 24-and-over group, which posted declines of nearly 11%.

However, where there were almost no positives last year—save for graduate enrollment numbers— there are two potentially uplifting data points that bear watching.

  1. Two-year colleges, which lost more than 10% of enrollments in 2020, are down again, but only by 3.4%. Overall, that’s 700,000 students since 2019, including associate degree seekers, which dropped another 6%. But the sector has gained more than 4% this year from undergraduate certificates, teacher preparation and special non-credential programs plus “other enrollments that are not part of any structured program.”
  2. Freshman enrollment has surged into positive territory after seeing numbers fall the past five cycles. Last year, it decreased by 9.5% among all age groups. This year, it is at +0.4%, helped by enrollments at private, four-year nonprofits (+2.9%) and community colleges (+0.4%).

Other notable enrollment figures include women, who overall have dipped 3% this year after losing just 0.7% in 2020. While men have fallen another 2.2% in 2021, that is improved over 2020 (-5%). Only four states are seeing positive totals: Arizona (1.6%), Colorado (1.1%), New Hampshire (9.3%) and South Carolina (1.1%). As for majors, the largest ones for undergrads (business, health, liberal arts, biology, and engineering) all declined while computer science (1.3%) and psychology (2.5%) each grew.

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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