Postsecondary enrollment this spring dropped 4.1%, a loss of 685,000 undergraduate and graduate students compared to last spring, according to an update from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. This marks the fifth semester in a row that postsecondary enrollment has fallen, Inside Higher Ed reports.
The new numbers show a sharper decline than the 3.5% loss seen last spring. Since spring 2020, U.S. colleges and universities have lost almost 1.3 million students—a 7.4% enrollment decline.
Community college driving enrollment declines
Looking just at undergraduates, that enrollment decline grows to 9.4%, much of it concentrated at public two- and four-year colleges.
Community colleges, in particular, accounted for more than half of this spring’s total postsecondary enrollment losses. Year-over-year enrollment at private nonprofit colleges, meanwhile, decreased by 1.7%. Graduate enrollment, which had increased in previous years, slid 0.8%.
The number of women enrolled in postsecondary institutions fell by 4.6% this spring, outpacing a 3.3.% decrease among men. The Clearinghouse traces much of this loss back to community colleges, where enrollment of women and men fell by 9.2% and 5.6%, respectively, compared with last spring.
Enrollment among all age groups also fell, according to Higher Ed Dive. Among undergraduates ages 18 to 24, enrollment dropped 3.2%, and enrollment of adult students over age 24 slid 5.8%. Half of that loss occurred at community colleges, which shed 10.8% of adults over age 24.
First-year enrollment up overall, but not for Black students
One positive development in the Clearinghouse data was a 4.2% increase in first-time, first-year enrollment, Higher Ed Dive reports. Public four-year colleges saw the largest increase in first-year enrollment at 10.8%. At community colleges, first-year enrollment increased 3.1%, a turnaround from last spring’s 10.7% drop.
Among racial and ethnic groups, Asian first-year students saw the largest enrollment gains of 15%. Native American first-year enrollment rose 8.5%, while Latinx and white first-year student enrollment rose 4% and 0.9%, respectively. Black first-time students were the only racial group to post an enrollment loss, with a 6.5% decrease compared to last year. Black first-year enrollment remained 18.7% below spring 2020 levels.
Whereas the enrollment declines seen in 2020 and 2021 could be attributed to the pandemic, this new data “suggests that there is a broader questioning of the value of college and particularly concerns about student debt and paying for college and the potential labor market returns,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, tells Inside Higher Ed.
Although there were a few areas of recovery in the spring 2022 numbers, Shapiro warns that any increases represented only a fraction of total enrollment and might not translate into enrollment growth trends in the fall.