Why COVID isn’t the only reason enrollment declines are getting worse

Undergraduate enrollment this spring declined by 4.7%, a steeper drop than last fall.

A rebound in higher ed enrollment after more than two years of COVID did not occur this spring as some experts had anticipated. In fact, the latest numbers show declines are accelerating and there’s likely more than just the pandemic to blame.

Undergraduate enrollment this spring declined by more than 662,000 students, or 4.7%, from spring 2021, according to the latest estimates released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse. Overall, the undergraduate student body has fallen by nearly 1.4 million students, or 9.4%, during the pandemic. “I am surprised that it seems to be getting worse,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse’s Research Center, said in a webinar Wednesday. “I thought we would start to see some of these declines begin to shrink a bit this term, particularly because there’s a general sense we should be coming out of the effects of the pandemic.”

The annual rate of decline this spring is steeper than fall 2021’s drop of 3.1% and just slightly below the 4.9% drop in spring 2021. Community colleges continued to suffer the biggest losses, with 351,000 fewer students enrolling, equating to a decrease of nearly 8%.

But digging deeper into the numbers shows there are forces beyond COVID at work. Earlier in the pandemic, community colleges—which serve larger numbers of low-income students—saw the steepest declines while graduate and professional programs had grown. Now, enrollment is declining across all higher ed sectors, including among four-year undergraduate students.

This is evidence of growing doubts among students and families about the purpose of higher education. “It suggests there is a broader questioning about the value of college and particularly concerns about student debt and paying for college, and the potential labor market returns,” Shapiro said.

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There are, however, faint signs of a potential recovery. The number of first-time students enrolling this spring matched pre-COVID numbers after declining over the last two years. Considering spring accounts for only about one-fifth of new student enrollment, it’s hard to predict whether this will lead to larger growth in the fall, Shapiro says.

Another bright spot is a substantial increase in the number of undergraduate students pursuing computer science as a major. At two-year colleges, there has also been a steady growth in vocational and trades programs, such as mechanical and repair technicians, construction, manufacturing, and private culinary services.

Here are more key findings from the report:

  • More than 462,000 (4.6%) fewer women enrolled this spring, doubling the losses seen in 2021. The two-year enrollment decline in female students is 665,000.
  • Enrollment of adults over age 24 fell by 5.8% or 354,000 students this spring, with half of the decrease occurring at community colleges.
  • Traditional college-age students (18-24) continued to decline by 3.2%, or 316,000 students, since spring 2021, which is a slower pace from a 5% decline the previous year.
  • Asian and Latinx freshman enrollment grew nationally over spring 2021, +15% and +4% respectively. But Black freshman enrollment declined by 6.5% or 2,600 students.

The states that saw the steepest declines in enrollment are Michigan (-15.5%), California (-8.1%), Washington (-7.2%), Arkansas (-7.1%) and Missouri (-7.1%). A handful of states experienced increases: Indiana (10.7%), Colorado (9%), New Hampshire (8.2%), Utah (3%) and Montana (2,3%).

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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