Final fall enrollment numbers show ongoing decline

Nearly 1 million fewer students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities this fall, compared with fall 2019, according to final enrollment data released this week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Undergraduate enrollment was down 3.1 percent in fall 2021 compared with a year prior, and down 6.6 percent compared with fall 2019. Noting that undergraduates are “continuing to sit out in droves,” the research center’s executive director, Doug Shapiro, said in a statement that “without a dramatic re-engagement in their education, the potential loss to these students’ earnings and futures is significant, which will greatly impact the nation as a whole in years to come.”

The fall 2021 enrollment declines spanned every institution type, falling:

  • 1.6 percent at private, nonprofit four-year colleges
  • 3.8 percent at public, four-year institutions
  • 11.1 percent at for-profit colleges
  • 3.4 percent at public, two-year institutions

The 3.4 percent decline at community colleges may indicate a leveling off; public two-year colleges have seen enrollment fall by 13.2 percent overall in the last two years.

First-year student enrollment numbers also showed signs of improvement, increasing by 0.4 percent in fall 2021. However, fall 2021 freshman enrollment still was down 9.2 percent compared with 2019 numbers.

Given the current state of the pandemic, “things are not really looking up,” Mikyung Ryu, an analyst and director of research publications at the research center, told Inside Higher Ed. “Campus leadership is struggling to retain students, let alone fill the empty seats from the pre-pandemic years.”

‘Unprecedented’ dip in share of high school graduates going straight to college

The research center also has released a report on college-going rates among recent high school graduates, finding that the percentage of students who enroll directly in college following high school graduation has “fallen by unprecedented levels” amid the pandemic.

The High School Benchmarks report, which reflects data from 8,400 U.S. high schools, indicates that the high school Class of 2020 had college enrollment rates that were four to 10 percentage points lower than the year prior, depending on the type of high school. High-poverty high schools saw an especially steep drop-off: immediate enrollment rates fell from 55 percent for the Class of 2019 to 45 percent for the Class of 2020. In comparison the immediate college enrollment rate among 2020 graduates at low-poverty high schools was 73 percent.

The research center also explored whether students who did not immediately enroll in fall 2020 could have simply taken a “gap year.” Researchers found that, of students who didn’t proceed to college in fall 2020, just 2 percent enrolled in fall 2021.

Speaking with Inside Higher Ed about the report, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said that the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have clearly dampened enrollment, especially when students can’t find jobs to help cover the cost of their education.

“Most people who are in the lower half of the family income distribution, you can’t work your way through college anymore. It’s too expensive,” Carnevale said. “But you do need a job. And so when the jobs go away, that screws up going to college, which is what’s unique about COVID.”

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