Spring enrollment: A total loss of 600,000 students from 2020

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center highlights the purge at community colleges, but a rise again in graduate students.
By: | June 10, 2021
Kameleon/Getty Images

How significant was the drop in the number of students enrolled at colleges and universities this spring? The declines surpassed even the pandemic-stunted period from the fall of 2020.

In all, more than 600,000 fewer students were registered this spring than in the spring of 2020, according to a new report released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The 3.5% drop in total enrollment year over year, while still an estimate, is the biggest seen by the Center since it started publishing the data in 2011.

The top casualty, as it has been for the past 12 months, were two-year institutions. After posting a 2.3% drop in the spring of 2020, community colleges hit a 9.5% decline this year – losing more than 475,000 students.

“The final estimates for spring enrollment confirm the pandemic’s severe impact on students and colleges this year,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “How long that impact lasts will depend on how many of the missing students, particularly at community colleges, will be able to make their way back to school for the coming fall.”

None of the sectors did well. Non-profit four-year institutions continued to trend downward if only slightly – with publics losing about 45,000 students from a pool of 7.5 million (-0.6%), and privates giving back 30,000 from 3.74 million (0.8%). For-profits institutions dipped 1.5%, losing a little more than 10,000 students from around 718,500 enrolled.

Inside the numbers

The total number of students enrolled during the spring fell below 17 million, as reported by institutions to the Clearinghouse in April. The undergraduate sector sustained a nearly 5% drop over the previous year, with associate’s degree seekers comprising the lion’s share of that freefall (-10.6%).

Their numbers were offset again by an increase in graduate or professional students of 4.6% (which was buoyed by a 5.6% boost at public four-years). Enrollment of graduate students is now at nearly 2.85 million, while two-year undergrads total 4.5 million – a difference of 1.7 million. Two years ago, it was 2.4 million.

Another notable trend is the uptick in enrollments in the “other undergraduate” category (certificate/diploma, teacher preparation and special non-credential programs) which saw a 34.7% jump at private for-profits (17,000 new students) and a 2% increase at public four-years (7,000 new students).

Breaking the data down further:

By age: 18-24-year-olds accounted for 524,000 students falling out, or about 5%. Adult students declined by 75,000 or 1.2%.

By gender: Enrollment of men overall was down 5.5% and notably plummeted more than 14% at two-year institutions, a pattern that has subsisted through the past 12 months. Women’s numbers were a bit better though still lower at -2% overall. They actually saw slight gains at public four-years and remained level at private non-profits.

By majors: Among those with more than 100,000 students enrolled, computer science (+3%) and psychology (4.8+) saw the biggest increases at four-year institutions, while English language and literature (-10.2%), communication/journalism (-8.7%), physical sciences (-7.6%) and liberal arts and sciences/humanities (-7.4%) saw steep declines. At two-year institutions, visual and performing arts (-18.1%), security and protective services (-16.7%) and liberal arts and general studies (-13.8%) fell by double digits. The only major with 25,000 students or more to rise at two-year institutions was legal professionals (4.8%).

By states: New Hampshire saw the largest increase of seven states that posted positive numbers at 10.8%, with Utah, Nebraska and West Virginia all rising more than 2%. California lost more than 122,000 students, while New Mexico fell the most by percentage (11.4%). Other states to experience steep drops included New York (52,000 students lost, -5.2%), Michigan (29,000, -6.4%), Illinois (28,400, -5%) and Pennsylvania (22,700, -3.8%).