How is higher education enrollment changing?
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center just updated their fall 2022 enrollment numbers. Here I’ll summarize their findings and add some commentary, based on the report as well as a press briefing.
tl;dr – American higher ed enrollment continued its decade-long decline, albeit less steeply than during the COVID years.
Now for details.
Overall undergraduate enrollment shrank 0.6% compared to fall 2021, or by “about 94,000 students.” Total undergrad numbers stand at just under 15 million. That’s a smaller decline than American campuses experienced during the pandemic.
The number of students taking classes not for credit actually increased. There were steeper declines for degree-seeking undergrads: 1.2% for those working on associates degrees, 1.6% for BA/BS.
Graduate student numbers also decreased, by 1.2%. That’s a shift after several years of pandemic-era grad student growth.
One bright spot: the number of first-year students increased across the board, after several years of decline.
Broken down by sectors, private nonprofit four-year schools “were essentially flat” due to a small downturn of -0.1%. There were larger declines in public universities. Community colleges actually enjoyed an enrollment uptick. This wasn’t from traditional student, but entirely due to dual enrollment (i.e., high school students). Without dual enrollment community colleges would have dipped down 1%.
The Clearinghouse also offers this view:
(That’s a little small, so let me display it in two bigger halves:
Broken down by demographics, white students were the only population declining in first-year classes, by 2 ½% and by 3.6% overall. Latino and Native American populations increased, while black first-year student numbers were unchanged. In overall undergraduate numbers Latino and Asian students grew, while blacks and whites declined.
In terms of gender, male student numbers were essentially flat, rising by 0.2%, while female enrollment declined by -1.5%.
How are different courses of study faring? The Clearinghouse previously identified five leading majors at four-year institutions; out of those, only business majors increased, by 1.2% The total number of business majors stands over 1.5 million students, and is the most popular field. The other four decreased, such as health fields (down 3%) and liberal arts (down 5%). In contrast, computer science shot up 10%. Other majors enjoying growth include psychology, engineering, and biomedical sciences. In communication colleges construction trades are growing.
Geographically, midwestern and northeastern states saw steeper declines than western and southern ones overall:
What can we take away from this data?
Online learning continued to grow. The Clearinghouse reclassified most entirely- or mostly-digital campuses under the header of “multi-state institutions.”
For the Clearinghouse, the pandemic’s effects seem to be over. That’s how they viewed the downturn in grad students, numbers of which had increased once COVID-19 struck. Yet echoes are still there:
postsecondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, down about 1.23 million undergraduates and 1.11 million total enrollment, both undergraduate and graduate, compared to fall 2019.
Some commentators have interpreted this data as good news. Forbes: “The College Enrollment Slide Is Leveling Off.” Washington Post: “College enrollment stabilizing.” I do not share this optimism. First, because it’s one semester of data, and doesn’t necessarily indicate a turn. As one observer notes,
“There could be a number of things making this [increase] appear,” said Joni E. Finney, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education. “I think it’s positive, I just don’t think it’s a trend yet. I think we need to see more to know if this is going to stick.”
Second, because the COVID decline accentuated a prior decline. As I’ve observed for a decade, higher ed enrollment peaked in 2012, and declined for the next seven years *before the pandemic*. It looks to me like we might be continuing that trend, and enrollment continue to slide downwards.
Third, *if* enrollment stabilizes at this point, then we remain below 2012 and are not building back to it. If we still believe in expanding access to higher ed, we continue to fail in that goal.
Back to institutional types: the data about community colleges tells me most of those schools will double down on dual enrollment.
Finally, I want to close by thank the Clearinghouse for doing this work.