Undergraduate enrollment at U.S. colleges continues to fall

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) shows ongoing enrollment declines at U.S. colleges and universities, with losses concentrated at less-selective institutions and public two-year colleges.

This week’s update from NSCRC reflects 8.4 million enrollments as of September 23 at about half of the U.S. institutions that submit data to the center. The report is “a closely watched indicator of sector-wide trends,” according to The Washington Post, and shows that this fall’s undergraduate enrollment is down 3.2 percent compared with a year earlier.

Combined with last fall’s losses, U.S. colleges and universities have posted a 6.5 percent enrollment decrease since fall 2019. If these preliminary numbers hold true in final analyses, “it would be the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years in the U.S.,” Doug Shapiro, NSCRC’s executive director, told reporters in a call.

Community colleges, least-selective institutions hardest hit

The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that, yet again, community colleges “bore the brunt” of these enrollment declines. Enrollment at two-year public colleges has decreased 5.6 percent compared with a year ago, meaning that community college enrollment has fallen by a total of 14.1 percent since fall 2019.

In comparison, enrollment at private nonprofit four-year schools decreased just 0.7 percent this year (and a total of 1.9 percent since 2019), while enrollment at public four-year institutions fell 2.3 percent this year (and a total of 3.1 percent since 2019).

Looking at selectivity, NSCRC found that undergraduate enrollment at private “highly selective institutions” actually grew by 4.3 percent this fall, and enrollment at highly selective public flagships rose by 1 percent. This year, selective institutions made up for “all the ground that they lost last fall,” Shapiro said.

Smaller decreases in first-year student enrollment

The research center points out that the dip in first-year student enrollment slowed compared with last fall. First-year enrollment at community colleges, for instance, was down 6.1 percent this fall, compared with a 15.7 percent decrease a year prior. Private nonprofit four-year institutions actually recorded a 2.4 percent gain this fall, compared with a 7.1 percent drop in 2020.

Ongoing enrollment challenges for adult learners, international students

Enrollment of international students also continues to fall—by 8.2 percent this year, and a total of more than 20 percent since 2019. Clearinghouse researchers point to travel restrictions as a key force depressing international student enrollment.

Cutting the data by age, researchers found that students ages 25 to 29 had larger enrollment declines than traditional-age students this fall. “It’s especially hard to be a college student who has a family to take care of and have children,” Jee Hang Lee, senior vice president at the Association of Community College Trustees, told the Post. Lee called on community colleges to step up support for older students, especially financial assistance like emergency aid.

Ultimately, the “continued erosion of enrollment could have significant impacts on college completion rates in the coming years,” the Post writes, adding that the trend “raises questions about the economic trajectory of a generation of students.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

College tuition growing at historically low rates, report shows

The College Board’s latest report on trends in college prices and student aid shows historically small increases in tuition and fees at U.S. colleges and universities.