American higher education enrollment decline returns to pre-pandemic level

How is higher education enrollment changing?

This week the invaluable National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published their latest data on American college and university enrollment.
Today I’ll summarize the findings, then point to implications for academia’s future. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logo

tl;dr summary – the pandemic enrollment crisis is over, and now total enrollment has returned to its 2013-2019 level of gradual, albeit uneven decline.

Starting with the big picture, total American post-secondary enrollment dropped by 0.5% from spring 2022 to spring 2023, from 16,963,053 to 16,878,602. (For historical context, spring enrollment stood at 18,154,038 in 2019, 17,944,635 in 2020, and  17,511,906 in 2021.)

Broken down by institutional type, for-profits and community colleges enjoyed an uptick this past semester.  Community colleges’ good fortune depends mostly on the rise of dual enrollment (i.e., high school) students. In contrast, public and private four-year institutions saw declines:

higher ed enrollment spring 2020-spring 2023_broken down by institutional type_National Clearinghouse_2023 May 24

Separating out data by degree level, the Clearinghouse assessed that “overall undergraduate enrollment remained stable for the spring term,” dipping down only by  0.2%, or 25,000 students. In contrast, graduate schools saw their student numbers dip down -2.2%, from 3,033,946 in spring 2022 to 2,965,729. This marks a shift away from COVID-era growth.  As Doug Shapiro (the Clearinghouse Vice President for Research and Executive Director, Research Center) put it in a call yesterday,  the pandemic-era “graduate student wave has passed.”

Slicing the data by demographics, starting with age, the report sees a reversal of the long adult education boom, as what growth the past year experienced came from students under 24 years old.  Those under 18 rose by 8.2% and the 18-24 group nudged upwards by a touch (0.3%), while those over 24 declined -3.3%.  We can see this in first-year student numbers, which “grew 9.2 percent from spring 2022.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education created a nice visualization of this demographic change:

enrollment by age 2019-2023 using Clearinghouse data_Chronicle 2023 May 24

Shapiro put it this way: “older students continue to disappear from campuses, except for-profits.”  Why is the adult population falling?  It looks like a mix of losing interest to a booming labor market and a college failure to recapture “stopped out students.” 

Switching to race, spring 2023 saw two continued trends.  White and black student numbers kept declining, while Asian and Hispanic students rose.  NB: this is according to yesterday’s media briefing. I can’t find race broken out in the linked report pdf nor the downloadable spreadsheet.

Turning to gender, the 21st-century trend of female students outpacing males in terms of enrollment might be reversing.  In spring 2023 the number of men taking classes nudged upwards, while women’s numbers declined a bit.  “Female enrollment declined by 1.2 percent (-118,000 students), while male enrollment grew slightly (+0.4% or +25,000 students).”  Women do remain the clear majority of students, numbering 10,023,878 against 7,129,439 men, and also across all institutional types.

The story differs by state.  The ones gaining the most students were Maine (5.7%), Kansas (5.4%), New Mexico (4.5%), and Tennessee (3.1%).  States losing the most students were Mississippi (6.8%), Washington (5.3%), Missouri (4.3%), West Virginia (3.9%), and North Carolina (3.1%).

What degrees are these students pursuing? The Clearinghouse uses CIP codes, and under that rubric the leading degree family by far is Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support.  Following that, with about 2/3rds the numbers, is Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences, followed by Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities.   The next highest degree set includes Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Engineering, and Psychology.

In terms of changing numbers, the major growing more rapidly than all others this spring was computer science, which boomed up by more than 11%.  In contrast, while a large number of students studied Health Professions and Related Clinical fields, those numbers continued to fall, now below pandemic levels.

What kinds of degrees are students aiming for? Here some previous changes continue to occur.  Undergrads are signed up for fewer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, while trying to get more ” sub-baccalaureate credentials.”  At the graduate level PhDs are stable, while the big change is  “losses in master’s programs (-57,000 students).”

What does this data mean for higher education’s future?  What are the strategic implications?

My first takeaway is that the post-2012, post-peak enrollment decline continues, albeit not at the fierce drop we saw during the pandemic.  As Liam Knox put it in Inside Higher Ed, “head counts seem to be settling into a slow descent.” Depending on the institution, this has budgetary implications, as most American campuses depend on student fees for the majority of their income.

Further, it means that higher education continues to veer away from its late 20th century mission of increasing academic access.  Indeed, Shapiro told me he saw overall enrollment as back to circa 2005 levels, which is bad in this context, and worse when we bear in mind that the nation’s total population has expanded in the past two decades.  Total enrollment of 16,878,602 compares poorly to our peak of circa 21 million, down around 20%, or standing at about 80% of where things once reached.

Second, looking ahead to Nathan Grawe’s demographic cliff, I wonder about campuses recruiting traditional-age students at present.  Is their goal to get as many teens as possible for the next 3-4 years, until their numbers drop?  How will institutions pivot to attract older learners, which they seem to be failing at right now? 

Perhaps my reading is too pessimistic and I’m too wedded to my peak higher ed model. Could the long enrollment decline turn around in the upcoming academic year, 2023-2024?  It’s possible, simply put, if enough people decide to take American college and university classes.  Yet this would be a sea change of attitudes, and a tricky transformation given the pressures continuing to depress enrollment: anxieties about student debt, increasingly hostile politics, increasing public skepticism, and low unemployment.  If the economy sours, perhaps we’ll see a return of some adults from a darkening workforce. Otherwise, we have to expect major cultural shifts for enrollment to return to pre-peak levels.

Doug Shapiro offered another view during our conversation about the new publication.  He used the word “stabilize,” suggesting that the decade of decline may have ended, and now we experience neither decline nor expansion, but an enrollment plateau.   Spring 2023’s decline was, after all, fairly small, especially in comparison to previous years.   I can imagine this playing out if enough of the “college for everyone” model survives its breakup, if community colleges continue to win their dual enrollment game, and if campuses continue to attract significant numbers of international students… until we hit the enrollment cliff’s edge.

What do you think?  Should this data point to a new growth period, continued declined, or a stable time?  Are you experiencing these changes in the higher education world you know?

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6 Responses to American higher education enrollment decline returns to pre-pandemic level

  1. Keith Lynip says:

    Would be interested in your analysis with respect to selective (the ‘haves’) institutions vs. less selective (the have nots) institutions within the broader trends. Anecdote of one, but my daughter applied to a mix of less, mid, and highly selective institutions. (She’s an honor’s student at the secondary level). Accepted at the less and mid institutions with substantial scholarships, but barely given a sniff at the selective institutions. My understanding is that these institutions have had the luxury of becoming *more* selective this year. (Institutions with an acceptance rate usually in the teens for this year are actually in the single digits.) Can you corroborate that observation? Is this a kind of negative feedback loop? To wit: More and more are aware of the number of ‘challenged’ institutions (institutions that may close suddenly), which then drives more applications to the fewer institutions that look solid (which of course are the institutions that have most of the top applicants already).

  2. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    What degrees are students pursuing? is a great question, but it needs to be couple with What jobs are they getting, and Where are they getting jobs, and How much do those jobs pay? Census provides some amazing Sankey diagrams to answer all these questions.,45,27&destination=industry&display=count

  3. sibyledu says:

    You describe the decline in adult learners this way: “It looks like a mix of losing interest to a booming labor market and a college failure to recapture “stopped out students.” ” Later, you ask, “How will institutions pivot to attract older learners, which they seem to be failing at right now?”

    I found it interesting that you characterize the decline in adult learners as a failure on the part of colleges. To be sure, this frame invites us to think about the things that colleges should be doing better, and after all colleges can only control what colleges do; they cannot control any of the other likely culprits (employers aren’t encouraging and supporting employees in trying to get college-level training, federal higher ed policy is designed for traditional students first and is back-formed for non-traditional learners, state policy ignores the education needs of anyone who already has a job, adults tend not to think of themselves as learners, society continues to characterize college as “the collegiate life” rather than “advanced learning,” certain individuals and political parties display, and encourage, mounting hostility to higher education in all forms). But those other culprits do exist, and we should give them some thought as well.

    I also find myself struggling with the question of, what is wrong with a smaller higher education sector? In Fall 1997, 25 years ago, higher education seemed to be in pretty good shape, but it was enrolling just 14.5 million students, 16% below the Spring 2023 number. Wouldn’t we still have a higher education sector if we dropped back to 14.5 million again? Wouldn’t we be able to knock down some of our overbuilt capacity and get rid of some of our deferred maintenance backlog? Wouldn’t we be able to reduce our carbon footprint, and maybe dedicate some of our unused land to wind or solar power generation? Shouldn’t we be planning for a smaller future, rather than straining to maintain our current size?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good thoughts, sibyledu.

      To the first point about how I framed the loss of adult learners: yes, in part I want readers to think of what higher ed is doing wrong. I also want us to take seriously the slogan of “lifelong learning,” which has to mean more than “alumni donating generously.” Now, it is quite true that we academics have to act within a much broader society, and we can’t control factors like unemployment rates.

      To your second, “what is wrong with a smaller higher education sector?” – I think today’s post might interest you.
      At the same time, I agree that we might have the benefits of improving pedagogy and physical plants… but how to do that with smaller budgets?

  4. Gary Stocker says:

    Bryan: Let’s add the impact of colleges continuing to discount tuition rates to incent students to attend. Even if enrollment is stabilizing (and that is a substantial leap of faith), there is still downward pressure on tuition rates. Enrollment doesn’t pay the bills. Tuition and fee revenue does.

    As we have seen with most of the recent private college closures, they have waited too long to seek a consolidation (merger) partner. When they reach out as their dollars circle the financial drain, those overtures to other colleges are being rejected. There is no value in a college with troubled financials.

    My best guess is that a rapid increase in closures will be the key to enrollment stabilization and downward pressure on tuition discounts. When enough colleges have closed, their students will enroll and fill the empty seats of many surviving colleges. As those empty seats are filled, the pressure to discount tuition will decrease.

    It is not that difficult to look at the financial health and viability of private colleges. On this beautiful Memorial Day, I can identify many colleges who are most likely to close their doors. Predicting the closure time frame is difficult, but looking at the trends in FTE enrollment, tuition and fee revenue, endowment value and graduation rates make easy to identify the likely candidates.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Gary, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this post. A pleasure to see you here.

      Agreed on tuition discounting, which seems to be one of higher ed’s dirty secrets. Lower and lower it’ll go and start imposing casualties.

      “When enough colleges have closed, their students will enroll and fill the empty seats of many surviving colleges” – I sometimes think of this as a market correction, following building too much capacity.

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