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.
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.”
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.
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.