Negative enrollment numbers continue to plague higher ed this fall

Clearinghouse Research Center data show most key categories and sectors experiencing losses.
By: | November 18, 2021
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Two statistics jump off the page of the latest Stay Informed enrollment report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The first is that undergraduate enrollment has fallen another 3.5% during the first two months of the fall semester. The second is that public four-year institutions, which can be more affordable and accessible to students—a key during the COVID-19 pandemic—are seeing a further decline of 2.5% in enrollment after falling 1.6% in 2020-21.

Those numbers might improve a bit, as they did last year. But with now 75% of 3,600 institutions reporting, this is not the kind of data colleges and universities were hoping to see, particularly after the reopenings of campuses and the heavy push by admissions teams to get students through their doors.

“Today’s data are largely consistent with last month’s report,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “And with more schools counted, the continued downward trends raise even more troubling concerns for students and institutions struggling to recover from the first pandemic year.”

The resulting losses on the undergraduate side add up to a nearly 8% drop across the pandemic-plagued past two years. Much of that tally can be attributed to another grim 6% decline among those enrolling at two-year institutions. In 24 months, communities colleges have lost nearly 15% of new students. For-profit universities, including undergraduate-serving institutions and graduate schools, are sustaining the biggest losses this fall, with enrollments plummeting around 9% in each category.

Inside the numbers

One sector that appears to be immune from the pandemic trend is graduate programs. After posting 2.7% gains in 2020-21, enrollment is up again this fall at 2.1%. But the losses across other sectors and individual student groups continue to offset those gains:

Selectivity: Almost all types of institutions are seeing enrollment declines: very competitive (-0.7%), competitive (-3.6%) and less selective (-4.6%). The lone exception: highly selective colleges and universities, which saw enrollments jump 1.5% (publics) and 3.1% (privates) overall.

Demographics: Although every subgroup is seeing slight improvements over last year’s freefalls, all of them are down again this fall: Whites (-5.2%), Latinx (-2.8%), Blacks (-5.1%), Asians (-2.2%) and Native Americans (-5.6%).

Gender: The number of undergraduate men fell by 3.4%, though that was an improvement over the 7% drop sustained last year. However, women enrolling saw sharper declines (4.1%) than in 2020-21 (2.8%)

Types of credentials: Bachelor’s seekers have fallen 1.9%, a bit worse than last year (1.3%). Those seeking associate’s degrees have dropped 7.1%, not quite as bad as 2020-21 (8.6%), but not good overall. After experiencing a more than 8% drop last year, the number of those seeking undergrad degrees has remained level.

States: More than 40 states have seen drops in undergraduate enrollment this fall. Only Idaho, South Dakota, Louisiana, South Carolina and Massachusetts saw gains above 1%. Mississippi is far and away the hardest hit at -7.5%, followed by Delaware (-6.6%) and Washington (-6%). California, New Mexico and Indiana all have lost more than 6% of undergrad enrollees.

Fields of study: Among the most significant numbers posted this fall, bachelor’s seekers enrolling in health professions have dropped by 3.7% after posting a 1% gain in 2020-21. Engineering also has lost a surprising 2.8% of enrolles.

Freshman enrollment: While freshman enrollment has fallen 2.7% this year, it is far better than last year’s 10.7% drop-off. Notably, enrollments of 21-24-year-olds are up more than 30% at public and private four-year nonprofits after posting 30% declines last year.

International students: Stunted by the pandemic last year (14% declines), this year’s numbers are much better, though still in negative territory at -3%.

Full-time vs. part-time: Public four-year and two-year institutions are both seeing steeper declines in full-time students than in part-time students.