When aggregating every higher education sector, bachelor’s degrees and graduate credentials were the two most prominent programs driving overall spring enrollment down by 0.2%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s spring 2023 enrollment estimates. Only non-degree programs experienced an increase in enrollment (4.8%), proving to be a key ingredient for two different sectors’ positive spring enrollment numbers.
Public 2-year and for-profit 4-year colleges were the only sectors to experience a positive enrollment rate, and it’s partially attributable to their non-credential and certificate programs. For example, non-degree offerings experienced a 14% gain at for-profits, the highest rate across all its programs. Since spring 2020, non-degree offerings have exploded in this sector by 115%, contributing to its third consecutive year of positive enrollment growth. Moreover, non-degree offerings at community colleges grew by 2.3%, contributing to two-year colleges’ first positive growth rate since spring 2020 (0.5%).
Non-degree credentials and certificates accounted for by the clearinghouse dub this program as “Other Undergraduate,” which includes undergraduate certificate/diplomas, teacher preparation and special non-credential programs, “that have been classified by institutions as undergraduate programs, as well as enrollments that are not part of any structured program and missing program level data.”
When broken down by sector, bachelor’s degree-seeking programs for students only experienced a positive growth rate at for-profit institutions. “Graduate/professional programs”—post-baccalaureate certificates, master’s degrees, doctoral degrees, first-professional degrees, graduate/professional certificates, and special non-credential programs—declined across all sectors.
“With the pandemic now behind us, a new set of factors appears to be preventing students from returning to campuses,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “And these new factors are having a stronger effect on students who are seeking bachelor’s degrees than on associate-seekers.”
Higher education as a whole must recuperate more than 1,000,000 students to return to pre-pandemic numbers. Private for-profit 4-year institutions make up the only sector to have recuperated and succeeded its spring 2020 numbers.
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Community college students drive a high rate of first-year enrollment
While enrollment among all undergraduates experienced a modest decline this spring semester, first-year students continue to show signs of promising growth. Higher education’s youngest student cohort showed increased enrollment across all sectors for a second year in a row, growing 9.2% since spring 2022. A key factor to first-year student enrollment seems to be public, two-year community colleges.
Community colleges experienced a whopping 12.4% increase in first-year students, eclipsing spring 2020 levels by 7% and nearly doubling last spring’s growth. In fact, nearly 60% of all spring freshmen enrolled at a community college. Dual-enrolled students seem to be driving this trend, for they made up 8% more students at community college than last year. Consequently, the median age of community college students has dropped a year since 2019.