Undergraduate enrollment rises for first time since the pandemic

Overall enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities continues to recover from pandemic-era declines, although significant eras of concern persist, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Stay Informed report—a series that began in the summer of 2020 to evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and higher education institutions. 

Fall 2023 undergraduate enrollment was up 2.1% (or 160,000 students) across all postsecondary institutions, including four-year colleges and two-year community colleges, compared to Fall 2022, according to preliminary data from Sept. 28, 2023. The report reflects data from 1,500 degree-granting institutions that enroll approximately 9.6 million students and is considered an accurate predictor of the full fall enrollment data that the research center typically releases in January, Higher Ed Dive and Inside Higher Ed report.

The growth in undergraduate enrollment marks the first time it has increased since Fall 2020. Graduate enrollment also increased by 0.7%.

First-year enrollment declines draw attention

However, first-year student enrollment fell 3.6% this fall, reversing a 4.6% gain seen in Fall 2022. The decrease was concentrated primarily among students ages 18-20, especially in public and private nonprofit four-year colleges, the report says. It was more pronounced at highly selective, very competitive, and competitive schools than at less selective schools, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Nearly all racial and ethnic groups saw first-year enrollment declines; enrollment fell by 9.4% for white first-year students, the largest drop of any group in the report. The cause of those first-year enrollment declines is unclear, experts say, adding that the pandemic’s lingering effects could still be affecting high school graduates’ college decisions.

A closer look at this year’s increase

Although the data in the report is a “mixed bag,” Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director, tells Higher Ed Dive that there are some bright spots. There was a 4.4% rise in community college enrollment this fall, which accounted for 58.9% of the growth in the overall enrollment of undergraduates, Inside Higher Ed says. Forty percent of that increase in community college students came from continued growth in dual enrollment programs.

“This is good news for community colleges and for the growing numbers of continuing and returning students who had lost momentum from the start of the pandemic,” Shapiro tells The Washington Post.

Undergraduate and graduate enrollment was also buoyed by growth among Black, Latine, and Asian students. Latine undergraduate student enrollment rose by 4.2%, the largest increase among all racial and ethnic groups. At the graduate level, Asian students posted the largest enrollment growth, rising 6.0%. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which have been experiencing a surge in applications, saw enrollment climb by 6.1% compared with last fall.

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