Enrollment trends in higher education
How has the pandemic affected our postsecondary pursuits?
Undergraduate enrollment in the United States has steadily declined in recent years, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic. According to the most recent figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall enrollment declined by 5.1% or 938,000 students in two years of the pandemic.
The American higher education system is hardly a monolith. So looking merely at overall enrollment numbers is incomplete, at best, and misleading at worst.
To better understand what was happening a few levels beneath the surface, I took a closer look at the National Student Clearinghouse’s latest Current Term Enrollment Estimates report, which was published in January 2022. Data alone can never tell the full story, but it can get you part of the way there.
- Community colleges have been the hardest hit. Enrollment in America’s two-year colleges has declined by 13.5% since the start of the pandemic. That represents 706,106 fewer community college students.
- Fewer undergrads. Undergrad student enrollment shrank for all types of colleges, from the private universities and for-profit schools, to the traditional public colleges.
- More graduate students in public colleges. On the other hand, the last two years of living in a pandemic has seen more people go back to college to earn an advanced degree. Public colleges and universities have been the drivers of increased graduate student enrollment, accounting for nearly 9 of 10 new grad students.
- For-profit flight. After bucking trends in 2020, when undergrad enrollments actually increased, for-profits saw the steepest percentage enrollment decline in 2021 (-11.1% or 65,500 students).
- Freshman enrollment: The freshman class in fall 2021 was 9.2% smaller (or 213,400 fewer students) compared to pre-pandemic levels in fall 2019. This suggests that it’s not just older students who are less likely to pursue traditional higher ed, but newly-minted high school graduates and first-timers as well.
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