For nearly a decade I’ve been tracking one higher education enrollment trend. Since 2012 the total number of students taking classes in American colleges and universities has declined. It’s a steady trend, with the curve dipping down every single academic year.
COVID-19 exacerbated this trend. Fall 2020 saw enrollments drop more steeply than in previous years, down 2.5% overall. Which gave rise to the natural question: how would enrollment fare in the spring 2021 semester?
Well, new data on this just appeared from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Short version: total enrollment declined by 3.5%, “seven times worse than the decline a year earlier.”
In this post I’d like to break down their findings, exploring what they mean for higher education.
The Clearinghouse report leads with this:
Overall spring enrollment fell to 16.9 million from 17.5 million, marking a one-year decline of 3.5 percent or 603,000 students, seven times worse than the decline a year earlier.
Again, the COVID crisis accelerated the pre-existing decline. 16.9 million students: that’s about 15% down from the 2012 height of around 20 million.
Now, that 3.5% actually represents a split in populations based on academic level. Undergrad numbers were worse than that, but grad programs actually did better:
Undergraduate students accounted for all of the decline, with a 4.9 percent drop or 727,000 students. In contrast, graduate enrollment jumped by 4.6 percent, adding more than 124,000 students.
This is consistent with the COVID experience so far. It also reminds me of Josh Kim’s 2018 argument that higher ed is fairly healthy, based on grad program growth. However, remember that the undergrad population is much larger than the graduate one, even with these changes.
Institutional categories: enrollment fell across all institutional types in spring 2021, if unevenly:
One sector was hit the hardest. Community colleges saw students numbers fall -9.5%. “Over 65 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment losses occurred in the community college sector.” In contrast, public four-years went down by 0.6%, private nonprofit four-years 0.8%, and private for-profit four-years 1.5%.
Types of students: the decline was general across all full time students. Part time was uneven:
part-time enrollment declined only at for-profit four-year and public two-year institutions. Part-time students increased at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions (+3.7% and +2.8%, respectively…
Demographics: enrollment fell across all ages, led by traditional-age undergrads.
Traditional college-age students, age 18 to 24, saw the largest decline across all age groups (-5% or 524,000 fewer students), largely attributable to their steep losses at community colleges (-13.2% or 365,000 fewer students). Adult students aged 25 or older fell at less than half the rate of the younger group at community colleges (-6.1%), and experienced gains at public four-year and private nonprofit four-year institutions (+2.7% and +2.3%, respectively…
In terms of gender, the long-running trend of women constituting a growing majority of higher ed students continued. The gender gap is now striking, with only 6,829,297 students identifying as men, while women number 10,026,004. By my calculation 40.5% of American post-secondary students are male and 59.5% are female. There are nearly half again as many women taking classes as men. (It’s crucial to remember this is a historical flip from centuries of male-dominated classes.)
Enrollment decline by gender breaks down unevenly by institutional type:
This trend is especially visible in the community college sector, with male enrollment dropping by 14.4 percent compared to a 6 percent decline in female enrollment. Also, the increase of 44,000 female students (+1%) is contrasted with a drop of 90,000 male students (-2.7%) in the public four-year institution sector…
The report didn’t include breakdowns by race or other demographics. In an Inside Higher Ed interview Doug Shapiro did touch on economic class:
Low-income students were more likely to withdraw from higher education during the pandemic than high-income students or students with undergraduate degrees, according to Shapiro. As a result, community colleges have experienced greater hits to their student ranks over the past year.
“If you didn’t already have a degree, you are much more likely to be working in low-wage jobs. Front-line workers are much more likely to be out of work and to be much more stressed financially during the recession and the pandemic,” Shapiro said. “Those are the students particularly that we see disappearing from community colleges, especially this year.”
Academic major: according to the report three courses of study showed the most robust growth:
In terms of the year-over-year percent change, Computer Sciences and Psychology showed the largest enrollment growth at four-year colleges (+3% and +4.8%, respectively)…
Psychology and Legal Professions were the only growing fields for two-year college students this spring (+0.8% and +4.8%, respectively).
Which majors declined?
Among two-year college major fields with over 100,000 students, enrollment fell most precipitously in Visual & Performing Arts (-18.1%), Security & Protective Services (-16.7%), Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies (-14.1%), and Liberal Arts & General Studies (-13.8%).
At four-year institutions, declining majors were led by: Construction Trades, -18.3%; Science Technologies/Technicians, -14.0%; English Language and Literature/ Letters, -10.2%; Family and Consumer Sciences/ Human Sciences, -8.7%; Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs, -8.7%; Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities 863,899, -7.4%.
Geography: a supermajority of states experienced this enrollment decline. Only these states did not: “Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia.”
Some quick observations:
One vital point is that 21st century American colleges and universities tend to rely on tuition as their leading revenue stream. Declining enrollment strikes at the heart of this.
While this semester’s data ties into a nearly decade-long trend, it’s also important to realize the data as describing the impact of COVID-19. As with fall 2020, the evidence is clear that students didn’t flock to colleges and higher ed during the pandemic, as some anticipated. For whichever reasons, the opposite is true.
Remember that this report describes a macro trend. It covers 50 states and more than 4,000 institutions. There is a lot of local variance. For example, just this morning I heard from a friend at a well known New York campus which is enjoying higher enrollment. Yet if America remains committed to getting more and more people more post-secondary education, we are now clearly failing in that ambition.
Community colleges continue to suffer. They get very little publicity, either in general or within academia, but this largest sector is getting hurt badly. The damage to these institutions and the communities they serve will be felt for years to come. And it could get worse if the enrollment trend persists.
Can this trend reverse? American COVID casualties and cases continue to plummet, as vaccines steadily make their way into human bodies:
Perhaps if fall 2021 greets the nation with the pandemic’s end and economic recovery, then more families will be more amenable to taking classes.
Final note: back in 2013 I came up with the idea of peak higher education. This was and remains a scenario, one possible future. So far higher ed has been living it all too faithfully.