American higher education enrollment declined in spring 2021, continuing a multi-year trend

How did college and university enrollment fare in spring 2021, during the pandemic?

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has a new report on the topic, continuing their close examination of the past year.  This is vital data for everyone thinking about higher education. I’ll break it down in this post.

Total post-secondary enrollment for American colleges and universities declined 4.2% in spring 2021, as compared with spring 2020 numbers.  According to the Clearinghouse’s press release, “[t]his is the steepest decline in undergraduate enrollment since the beginning of the pandemic.” Undergraduate enrollment slid even further than that total, down 5.9% across all credential types, offset to an extent by another rise (by 4.4%) in grad student numbers:

enrollment 2021 spring_degree type_Clearninghouse

Nearly every institutional type lost students, compared with spring 2020, except for some for-profit gains among part timers, but community colleges suffered the worst, plummeting 11.3%:

enrollment 2021 spring_institutional type_Clearninghouse

In contrast, primarily online institutions enjoyed a boom:

enrollment 2021 spring_primarily online institutions_Clearninghouse

Spring 2021 also saw changes in what fields people pursued.  For undergraduate bachelor’s degrees, computer science grew, while the humanities and social sciences fell. My forecast of COVID curricular success bore out, with health professions rising somewhat and psychology becoming ever more popular:

enrollment 2021 spring_majors_Clearninghouse

There are several important details with regard to demographics. Both men’s and women’s numbers declined, although the former was steeper than the latter… except online: “This spring, male undergraduate enrollment is up 3.5 % at these institutions, compared to 1.4 % for female enrollment.”  In terms of age, all ages declined, with one important dimension:

Traditional college-age students, particularly those aged 18 to 20, saw the largest decline of all age groups (-7.2%). 18- to 20-year-olds make up the largest share of undergraduates overall (40.9%). The decline was especially pronounced at community colleges (-14.6%).

Racially, all races dropped, with Native Americans more so than others:

enrollment 2021 spring_race_Clearninghouse

Why does this matter?

To begin with, recall that tuition is generally crucial to how American campuses pay their bills.  State support has dropped since the 1980s, overall. Endowments are only large enough to matter for a relative handful of elite universities. Tuition is often key to keeping doors open… and there are fewer students passing through those doors to pay that tuition.

It’s also important to realize that spring 2021’s decline follows in the footsteps of fall 2020’s drop.  Actually, this term ‘s downtown is 1.5 points steeper. This shows the impact of COVID on higher education is persistent through the academic year, not just an artifact of one semester.

Community colleges are being hit the hardest, as they were in fall 2020. Remember that this is the biggest sector of American higher ed, and also the least funded.  Their enrollment has been sinking for almost a decade.  Community colleges are a cornerstone of access to higher education; their decline is not good news for America’s democratic desires for post-secondary learning.

From a different angle, I’m struck by how undergraduate and grad programs experienced opposite worlds. As I’ve said before, this tendency may encourage some universities to invest more in graduate courses and programs… and less in the undergrad side of the house.

Another ramification of this data concerns the diametrically opposed experience of primarily online institutions and everyone else.  The former are doing very well, unlike the latter.   Phil Hill characterizes this as “a flight of students toward institutions that had deep experience in online education and a broad set of offerings prior to the pandemic.”

On top of all of these issues, recall that spring 2021’s story is just one more point on a multiyear curve.  Nearly ten years ago I called out a sudden reversal of a generation’s enrollment growth, and pointed to the possibility that American higher ed had passed a peak, at least in terms of student numbers.  Every year since then – every semester – total enrollment has ticked down.

I know this trend and its ramifications are in the minds of many campus planners as they look to fall 2021. How will we redesign and cocreate that new semester to stave off this downhill slide?

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3 Responses to American higher education enrollment declined in spring 2021, continuing a multi-year trend

  1. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    I’m a little surprised the “graduate student” bulge — jutting out into thin air — wasn’t recognized as evidence for the existence of credential inflation as it spirals out of control. Only the graduate schools are benefiting, right?

    Even if part of this is a form of the “gap year,” it amounts to the same thing — Masters degree students have to leave the hallowed halls at some point to rejoin the world. We’re just breeding smarter rats/mice for a life-maze in which cheese is getting harder and harder to find.

    Regarding this data set overall, I wanted to see the effect of SES as an independent variable. Is there a gap or are there gaps that are widening? I’m a little surprised, given the heated rhetoric about inequality, that this side of the data is missing. How do we bring the discussion to the problem?

    Lastly, of course, is the link between credentials and earnings. The last graph in Scott Galloway’s recent blog sends chills up and down my spine. https://www.profgalloway.com/higher-ed-2-0-what-we-got-right-wrong/
    Can democracy survive such abrupt downward shifts? Note that each cohort exceeds the educational attainment of the those before it — contradicting human capital theory on which fundamental assumptions are based.

  2. Any US enrollment gains over the next few years will be followed by a steeper decline in 2026 (18 years after the crash of 2008) and possibly 2038 (18 years after 2020). State budgets will be further constrained by Medicaid, K-12, prisons, and infrastructure costs and the unwillingness of big corporations and rich people to pay for their theft of surplus value. This decline will be a boon to the elites, who only have to worry about class conflict instead of actual competition. But the elites can build bigger walls and hire more security.

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