College enrollment declines continue this fall, but at a slower rate

College enrollment fell once again, dropping 1.1% this fall compared to fall 2021 across all higher education institutions—community colleges, private and public non-profit institutions, and for-profit universities—according to an update from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Overall, these numbers mark the smallest reduction in enrollment since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Higher Ed Dive reports.

Related: What’s really putting a damper on college enrollment? Survey takes a closer look. >

Despite the slower rate of enrollment loss, there are still areas of concern, says Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center. “I certainly wouldn’t call this a recovery,” he told reporters, according to Inside Higher Ed. “We’re seeing smaller declines, but when you’re in a deep hole, the fact that you’re only digging a tiny bit deeper isn’t exactly good news.”

Mixed enrollment numbers

The 1.5% enrollment decline among first-year students across four-year colleges, including highly selective private and public flagship institutions, is particularly worrying, experts say. After an increase of 10.7% in fall 2021, highly selective private institutions saw the largest first-year enrollment decline in fall 2022 at 5.6%. “Our biggest concern is that we aren’t seeing a huge upsurge back in freshman enrollment at four-year institutions” Shapiro said. “Many institutions are still below their freshman numbers from last year, let alone 2019, and that’s very concerning.”

Related: Spring data show 5th straight semester of enrollment declines >

Enrollment declines were also steeper among women than men, a reversal of earlier trends and indicative of a lack of institutional support for working women and/or women with familial obligations, according to Mikyung Ryu, the research center’s director of research publications. Graduate program enrollment also fell 1.0%, erasing some of the gains (+2.7%) made last year.

However, there were bright spots in the fall 2022 enrollment numbers. Community college enrollment, which plummeted around 10% in 2019 and 2020, showed only a 0.4% enrollment loss year-over-year, the smallest drop since the pandemic. The leveling-off reflects an increase in dual-enrolled high school students (+11.5%) and slight rise in 18- to 20-year old students (+1.4%). “Dual enrollment is going to be a really important constituency for community colleges to think about as part of their institutional strategy,” says John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College at Columbia University.

Related: Gates Foundation provides grants to early college, dual enrollment programs >

Enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) also rose 2.5%, reversing a 1.7% enrollment decline from last year. Primarily online institutions saw increased enrollment (3.2%), as well.

Topics in this story

Next Up

Report: Colleges increasingly unaffordable for Pell Grant recipients

The National College Attainment Network finds that two- and four-year colleges are becoming more unaffordable for the average Pell Grant recipient.