Undergraduate enrollment climbs for first time since the pandemic, despite freshmen drop-off

Positive undergraduate enrollment rates at community colleges accounted for 59% of the fall cohort's total increase, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Undergraduate enrollment this fall has increased for the first time since the pandemic, 2.1% above fall 2022 and 1.2% above 2021, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Undergraduate students across every income quintile enrolled at positive rates, perpetuating enrollment increases across every sector of higher education and credential type.

Positive undergraduate enrollment rates at community colleges accounted for 59% of the fall cohort’s total increase. Community college has gained such a significant number of students for two reasons. First, it is the primary provider of non-degree undergraduate certificates, the credential that by far experienced the highest increase in enrollment at 9.9%, second only to graduate certificates (5.7%). Secondly, dual enrollment among K12 students accounts for 40% of the increase in community college enrollment in the last two years, said Douglas Shapiro, Executive Director of The Clearinghouse.

Impressive enrollment rates at community colleges, undergraduate certificates and private for-profit universities (which experienced a 6.4% increase) follow similar trends dating back to The Clearinghouse’s spring 2022 report.

“The pattern of increasing enrollment in certificates is probably suggesting some realignments in the perceptions of value of four-year degrees among traditional-aged students, but also just a preference for workforce aligned credentials that students can see more immediate value or return on investment on,” Doug said in a media briefing. “[They] are less expensive, shorter time commitments and perhaps more direct connections to employment.”

While this report only relays preliminary findings from a little over half of all its participating institutions, covering around 10 million undergraduate and graduate students, Shapiro says preliminary data from previous reports have provided a reasonably accurate forecast of what’s to come when its official report is released early next year.

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Undergraduate enrollment up despite freshmen declines

While this is the first time overall undergraduate enrollment is up post-pandemic, public and private nonprofit four-year institutions seeking freshmen students must take this data with a grain of salt. Enrollment in each sector is down 6.1% and 4%, respectively. While enrollment among freshman aged 21 and older has increased by more than 13%, higher education’s largest demographic of traditionally aged 18-20 year-olds is down 5.2% overall.

The decline in freshman enrollment and increase in overall undergraduate enrollment is a reversal of last fall’s data, which Shapiro admits is a headscratcher. He speculates this is an attitude that may have developed among high school students who quarantined during the pandemic and are no longer incentivized to attend college. As for undergraduate enrollment increasing, this may be due to previously stopped-out students returning to college and students staying in school longer.

“This is good news for community colleges and for the growing numbers of continuing and returning students who had lost momentum from the start of the pandemic,” he said in a press release.

Save Asian students, every freshman race and ethnicity experienced an enrollment decline. While it says on paper that White students experienced the sharpest decline at 9.4%, Shapiro believes this information may be imprecise, for White students may not feel incentivized to report their race or ethnicity on college reports and decide to leave it blank instead.

Freshmen of all income levels saw declines in enrollment across all sectors. From fall 2021 to fall 2023, freshmen enrollment at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges has seen a 2.6% and 2.7% decline, respectively.

However, HBCU colleges follow a different narrative. Their freshman enrollment grew 9.2% this fall, raising their total undergraduate enrollment by 6.1%.

Private for-profits (+10.8%) and part-time undergraduate certificates (11.8%) again enjoyed positive rates of enrollment growth among first-year students.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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