American higher education enrollment: the decline declines?

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.

(Here’s their first data report from October. I’m hosting their director for a Forum conversation in a few weeks.)

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%.


enrollment US higher ed 2017-2022_Clearinghouse 2023 Feb

The Clearinghouse also offers this view:

enrollment US higher ed by sector 2018-2022_Clearinghouse 2023 Feb

(That’s a little small, so let me display it in two bigger halves:

enrollment US higher ed by sector 2018-2022_Clearinghouse 2023 Feb -left edge


enrollment US higher ed by sector 2018-2022_Clearinghouse 2023 Feb -right edge


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.

popular majors 2017-2022 by Clearninghouse_published 2023 Feb

Geographically, midwestern and northeastern states saw steeper declines than western and southern ones overall:

enrollment by state 2022 fall_Clearinghouse 2023 Feb report

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.

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17 Responses to American higher education enrollment: the decline declines?

  1. Vanessa Vaile says:

    “In communication colleges construction trades are growing.” !?! Ambushed by completion algorithm?

  2. Vanessa Vaile says:

    This landed just as I was about to join a higher ed organizing zoom. So I asked the panel what effect they expected enroll drop to have on organizing. Imagine a zoom screen of academics at a loss for words. Finally the moderator rambled a bit without really answering. The Forum chat gang would have been all over it like…

  3. Glen McGhee says:

    Bryan, I missed the dual enrollment data showing up at post-secondary institutions.
    Where is this coming from? Thanks, Glen

  4. Dahn Shaulis says:

    T minus 3 years for the 2026 enrollment cliff.

  5. Ted says:

    The data about dual enrollment rings true from here in west Alabama. The community college system here has been pushing dual enrollment hard for several years now, and it’s been our only source of growth.

    Unfortunately, we’re reaching the point where we’re cannibalizing ourselves. The English department had trouble finding enough classes for our full-time faculty this semester because English composition enrollment has fallen off a cliff. By the time they get here, most of our incoming students have already had composition, primarily from their high school teachers in high school classrooms. Administration claims that by getting students to enroll while in high school we’ll be building a relationship so that they’ll continue here, but the reality seems to be that they get what they need from us in high school and never darken our doorways.

    To add insult to injury, we recently had a campus-wide faculty development workshop to figure out how to deal with underprepared students. Umm…you’re filling our classes with 10th graders. By definition, they’re underprepared because they haven’t graduated from high school, literally our *only* prerequisite as an open-admissions institution. Dual enrollment isn’t for advanced students anymore: we’re signing up anyone and everyone.

    Are other community colleges starting to see the fallout from the dual enrollment push?

    As Dahn indicates above, 2026 is going to be interesting. I really don’t think anyone in administration here sees it coming.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Ted, those are two powerful downsides to dual enrollment.
      May I share your question on Twitter and elsewhere?

    • Glen McGhee says:

      I appreciate hearing about Alabama’s dual enrollment.
      In Alabama, who can teach a “dual enrollment” course for college credit? Where are most of these classes taught, high school or college campus or online?
      Chat bot says: The majority of dual enrollment courses in Alabama are taught on college and university campuses or online, although some courses may also be taught at high schools. The specific location and format of the course will depend on the institution offering the credit and the needs of the students taking the course.

      Florida’s dual enrollment classes are taught at high schools, in sharp contrast, by high school teachers that may or may not be “qualified”.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      From Chat:
      Dual enrollment classes in Alabama can be taught in various settings, including high schools, colleges, and online. However, according to the Alabama Department of Education, the majority of dual enrollment classes in the state are taught at high schools.

      The Alabama Community College System (ACCS) and the Alabama State Department of Education have established partnerships to offer dual enrollment opportunities to high school students. Through these partnerships, high school students can take college-level courses at their own schools, taught by qualified high school teachers who meet the qualifications established by the partnering college or university.

      Additionally, some dual enrollment classes in Alabama may be taught at college campuses or online. It ultimately depends on the specific program or course that a student is enrolled in, as well as the availability of resources and facilities.

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  7. sibyledu says:

    One way to look at that fall enrollment figure is to say that it is lower than at any time since 2007. Another is to say that it is higher than any year before 2007.

    If fall enrollment continued to drop — let’s say to 16,000,000, a decline of an additional 12 percent — it would still be higher than at any time in the 20th century. That’s a time within the memory of most of the people reading this.

    Neither the Clearinghouse nor anyone else can say whether declining numbers are the result of (a) fewer people who want to go to college, (b) fewer people who can afford to go to college, (c) fewer people who have the health to go to college, or (d) anything and everything else. Obviously, all of the above are factors. But until and unless we sort it out we don’t know what problems we need to fix.

    It seems to me that higher education should be able to exist if enrollment were to continue to fall to, let’s say, 16 million students. That would be another 12% decline. But it would also be more than were enrolled at any time during the 20th century. We should be able to survive with that many students. It’s going to come at a cost in jobs and institutions, for sure. But economic sectors grow and shrink over time; higher education can’t possibly be considered immune. Too many institutions are governed by an assumption of indefinite growth. We need to plan to get smaller, so we aren’t overwhelmed when it happens.

    Near the end of this essay you write, “If we still believe in expanding access to higher ed, we continue to fail in that goal.” Who do you mean by “we”? Higher education institutions certainly believe in that goal, and large segments of the higher education policy community believe. But if by “we” you mean the United States, then no, “we” do not believe in that goal anymore. There are millions of citizens, and dozens if not hundreds of elected officials at the federal and state levels, who think we have quite enough students already. The consensus that existed in the wake of the Truman Commission report has long gone away.

    I am not sure what would restore that consensus. But it’s going to take something like that consensus to put higher education on a path where “indefinite growth” is again a reasonable expectation.

  8. Glen McGhee says:

    I was really disappointed that Shapiro did not explain dual enrollment better. If National Student Clearinghouse receives its data from colleges, how does the clearinghouse know anything about DE in the high schools? States vary greatly in regard to DE.

  9. Glen McGhee says:

    Chat bot corrected itself, and then gave data to support the correction!

    I apologize for any confusion my previous response may have caused. You are correct that the majority of dual enrollment courses in Florida are actually taught at high schools, rather than on college campuses. This is due in large part to the logistical challenges and costs associated with transporting high school students to college campuses during the school day.

    According to the Florida Department of Education, as of the 2020-2021 academic year, approximately 70% of all dual enrollment courses in the state were taught at high schools, while the remaining 30% were taught at colleges or universities. Some courses may also be offered online or through other distance learning modalities, which can provide additional flexibility and convenience for students.

    I appreciate your attention to detail and your commitment to accurate information. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      So, yeah — Doug Shapiro has some explaining to do. If 70% of the DE classes are taught in the high school, and the high schools assign teachers to teach them, how does National Student Clearinghouse know ANY of this? How does clearinghouse find out about what’s going on in the high schools? What about AP or IB?

  10. Glen McGhee says:

    I wanted to throw this thought out in regard to inaccurate enrollment figures — If we take under-employment as a proxy for inflated credentials, then back out THOSE enrollments (for those headed to jobs with inflated credential entry requirements), what would enrollment look like? Using underemployment rates of 30%, 40%, even 50%, the highed ed landscape is pretty much a cratered lunar desert — obscured momentarily by clouds of credential inflation.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      Glen’s Prompt: Regarding recent college graduates and the entry level jobs they are hired for, about what percentage are getting starting positions for which they are considered under-employed or mal-employed?//

      CHAT reply: Underemployment generally refers to a situation where a person is employed in a job that does not fully utilize their skills, education, or experience. Mal-employment refers to a situation where a person is employed in a job that does not require a college degree.

      According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), as of 2021, the underemployment rate for recent college graduates (defined as those aged 21 to 24 with a bachelor’s degree or higher) was 34.0%. This includes graduates who are either unemployed, employed part-time but seeking full-time work, or employed in jobs that do not require a college degree.

      Another report by the Strada Education Network and Lumina Foundation found that 43% of recent college graduates are mal-employed, meaning they are working in jobs that do not require a college degree.

      It’s worth noting that the percentage of underemployed or mal-employed recent college graduates may vary depending on factors such as the state of the economy, the specific field of study, and the job market in a particular geographic region.

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