First-year enrollment down 16% at U.S. colleges and universities

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) shows that undergraduate enrollment at the nation’s colleges and universities has declined even more than previously thought. As of September 24, roughly one month into most institutions’ fall semesters, undergraduate enrollment was down 4 percent compared with last year’s levels.

NSCRC’s latest numbers reflect data from 54 percent of the 3,600 institutions covered by the clearinghouse, representing approximately 9.2 million students. An earlier sample representing 22 percent of NSCRC institutions had shown a 2.5 percent enrollment decline as of September 10; NSCRC will release its next update on November 12.  

Steepest drop-off among first-year, community college students

According to NSCRC, first-time beginning students account for a huge portion—69 percent—of all undergraduate enrollment loss. Overall, U.S. colleges and universities are reporting a 16.1 percent decrease in freshman enrollment. 

That drop-off is especially pronounced at community colleges, which have seen a 22.7 percent decrease in first-time students, compared with last fall. Overall, community colleges are reporting a 9.4 percent enrollment decline, far exceeding that experienced by public four-year and private nonprofit four-year colleges, which have seen 1.4 percent and 2 percent enrollment declines, respectively. For-profit, four-year colleges were the only segment that saw growth, with a 3 percent increase in year-over-year enrollment.  

Typically, community college enrollment increases during economic downturns, when unemployed workers seek out new credentials. In addition, community colleges had been bracing for an influx of students seeking a more affordable, closer-to-home college option during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, families’ financial strain, the digital divide, and the challenge of translating vocational courses to virtual formats have swung the pendulum in the other direction, said Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive research director. 

Related: ‘Alarming’ nationwide exodus of low-income college students, students of color >

Shapiro said he worries that many of the community college students foregoing their education right now may never get back on track. “Community colleges are a huge part of access for higher ed, in general, for disadvantaged students,” he told Inside Higher Ed, adding that “it’s especially troubling that we risk an increasingly more inequitable society if we don’t address these gaps in access. And do so quickly.”

Continued decline for international students

Breaking down the data by racial and ethnic groups, NSCRC found that American Indian and Native Alaskan students had the sharpest enrollment decline of 10.7 percent. Black student enrollment decreased by 7.9 percent, compared with 7.6 percent among white students, 6.1 percent among Hispanic students, and 4 percent among Asian students. International students continued to show a sharp decline of 13.6 percent.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on certain communities, “we expected to see steeper declines among Black, Native American, and Hispanic students,” Shapiro said. He notes that enrollment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) appeared to align closely with the national trends for undergraduates overall. But the gap between Black and white students was especially pronounced for community colleges, where Black student enrollment was down 14 percent, compared to 11 percent for white students. 

Finally, male undergraduate college enrollment fell by 6.4 percent, far more than the 2.2 percent decrease among female undergraduates. 

“I think there’s a real risk that this entire generation of students will take many, many years to recover from the declines,” Shapiro said in a call with reporters.

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