The college enrollment drop is finally letting up. That's the good news
Undergraduate college enrollment is continuing its years-long decline, though at a much less drastic rate than during the pandemic. According to preliminary data released Thursday, U.S. colleges and universities saw a drop of just 1.1% of undergraduate students between the fall of 2021 and 2022. This follows a historic decline that began in the fall of 2020; over two years, more than 1 million fewer students enrolled in college.
"I certainly wouldn't call this a recovery," says Doug Shapiro, who leads the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse, which released the preliminary data. "We're seeing smaller declines. But when you're in a deep hole, the fact that you're only digging a tiny bit further is not really good news."
The declines in undergrad enrollment were felt across all types of institutions, including private non-profits, four-year public schools and for-profit colleges. Community colleges saw the smallest declines – only a 0.4% enrollment loss compared to fall 2021 – thanks in part to increased enrollment among high school students who were dual-enrolled and freshmen. That's really good news, as community colleges were the hardest hit during the pandemic, with enrollment drops in the double digits.
For this preliminary report, the National Student Clearinghouse collected data on 10.3 million undergraduate and graduate students, representing a little more than half of the colleges they plan to collect data from by the end of the semester.
Across the country, colleges have also been reporting their own fall enrollment ups and downs. A free community college program in Maine, which targets high school students who graduated during the pandemic, led to big enrollment gains there: Nearly 2,000 more students enrolled at campuses across the state this fall, a 12% jump from a year ago.
But many other places follow the national trend of decline. At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a regional four-year public college, enrollment is down 3%. About 45 miles south, another branch of the university that is also a historically Black school, in Pine Bluff, saw enrollment go down by 7% compared to last fall.
"We are analyzing the data to determine where and why most of the decline occurred," Mary Hester-Clifton, director of communications and institutional advancement, told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "There is no singular reason for the decrease, [but] it appears that the pandemic and economic conditions are affecting our enrollment."
Concerns about student debt and a strong labor market for unskilled workers, and questions about college affordability, particularly at four-year colleges, are other major factors keeping prospective students away from getting a degree, according to Shapiro.
There was hope that would-be undergraduates who chose to take a year off in 2020 and in 2021, would return to college, especially given the expanded opportunities for in-person learning this fall. That didn't happen.
"We're not seeing a return of what we might call the lost freshmen of fall 2020 and fall 2021," says Shapiro. "There's not a lot of evidence in these numbers that they're coming back now."
Enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been trending downward since around 2012, falling by at least 1% a year. The pandemic turbocharged the declines at the undergrad level. Now, the decline has resumed at a steadier pace.
Graduate program enrollment, which saw an increase in the fall of 2020 but a decline in 2021, continued to decline this fall, though numbers are still above pre-pandemic levels.
"My theory would be, I think in the initial shock of the pandemic in fall 2020, the fresh-minted college graduate wanted to buy themselves a little time by enrolling in master's degree programs," says Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the clearinghouse. "As the labor market is turning in the other direction, maybe there is more interest in getting employment rather than seeking further education at the graduate level."
Some bright spots in the preliminary data include increased undergraduate enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities, and at primarily online institutions, where more than 90% of students are generally remote.
"[Students] are increasingly open to online degree programs," says Shapiro.
Not a surprising side effect of two years spent doing nearly everything on a computer during the pandemic.
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