American higher education enrollments declined, again: new NSCRC data

(second of two posts; here’s the first one)

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoThe enrollment decline in American colleges and universities continued this fall semester, according to just-released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  This is very important for higher education in this nation.

The big picture: student numbers declined in nearly every metric, continuing a nearly decade-long fall.  Only elite universities and graduate programs enjoyed actual growth. Overall, undergraduate numbers dropped by 3.2%.  Graduate enrollment rose again, by 2.1%, albeit within a much smaller group than undergrads.  To sum up, the Center’s headline for this report is “Undergraduate Enrollment Still Falling.”

Let’s dive into the data by category.

Demographics: by gender, male and female enrollment both declined at about equal rates in fall 2021, compared to last year.  By race, the largest declines were among white, black, and native American populations, more so than Asian and Hispanic groups.  By age, nearly all demographics declined, especially people 25-29 years old, except for the under 17 population.

International students dropped by 8.2%.

enrollment by race to fall 2021_Clearinghouse

Institutional types: community colleges continued to get hit hard, dropping by 5.6%.  Private four-year schools were clobbered, falling 12.7%. Public baccalaureate institutions declined by 2.3%.  Private four-year undergraduate populations shrunk the least, only by 0.7%.

enrollment undergrad_school type_student intensity_Clearinghouse

In terms of reputation, the small group of the most selective institutions actually grew, while enrollment declined for everyone else:

enrollment 2019-2021 by school rank_Clearinghouse






Online institutions actually declined by 5.4% (undergrad) and 13.6% (grad students), which is a reversal of recent years.

Geography: every American region lost students, although the west experienced a somewhat steeper downward turn.  “While the Midwest (-3.3%), Northeast (-2.8%), and the South (-2.6%) either maintained or experienced smaller declines in undergraduate enrollment, the West (4.4%) saw larger drops this fall.”

Majors and academic programs: undergraduates fled the liberal arts, humanities, and general studies.  Weirdly, health professions also declined, even during a pandemic:

enrollment undergrad by 5 majors_Clearinghouse

Graduate enrollment showed IT running away with the game, followed distantly by public administration.  Education declined:

enrollment grad by 5 majors_Clearinghouse

What can we take away from this report?

  1. Community colleges and for-profits were hit the hardest.  Those sectors, which compete for similar students, continue a historical decline.
  2. While new American COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths decline, one explanation for the depression in college and university enrollment may be the pandemic – i.e., some would-be students fearing infections or substandard education for on campus activity, while others anticipate poorer experiences online.
  3. There’s a Matthew Effect at play when it comes to selectivity. Watch to see how this shapes media and academic responses, with attention paid to Harvard at al, and both faculty and staff from the most selective crowing about their growth.  In the medium and long term, will we see social-economic status become more strongly identified with college credentials, as the marginalized and poor drop away?
  4. The decline in health care as a major surprises me, and checks my “COVID Curriculum” model.  During a video meeting Center staff suggest this is a bounce back from last year, which saw higher health care enrollment.  It may also be students anticipating the pandemic’s end and a commensurate drop in hiring, or being worried about what often look like horrible job conditions.
  5. I first wrote about peak higher education nearly a decade ago. So far that scenario holds for the sector as a whole.
  6. If Americans still think we want to expand access to higher education, we are failing deeply and badly.  Community colleges, which serve more marginalized people than others, have been suffering for years now.  Are we looking at a cultural shift away from “college for all”?  Have we reached a turning point in our attitudes towards higher education?
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11 Responses to American higher education enrollments declined, again: new NSCRC data

  1. I’d be interested to see the community college results state-by-state, to see whether there’s a relationship between enrollment decline and tuition rates. If lower in-state rates meant higher enrollment, that would be interesting to see.

  2. I want to see broader open (informed) discussion and (bi- and/or -non) partisan reactions from non-stakeholders and user (non-academics) stakeholders… and folded into climate and higher education discussion.

  3. Joe says:

    Bruce Sterling said it best in a reference I’ve since lost: in the 80s he felt we were entering a Neo-Victorian future, where a meritocracy would replace the rigid strictures of that older era’s form of inequality.

    And here we are 40 years later, with the children of the 10% being groomed from birth to work for the 1%. And the rest?

    The garbage heap or the militias. It’s ripe for collapse and revolution.

  4. Glen McGhee says:

    Question #3 needs to be answered in the affirmative. “In the medium and long term, will we see social-economic status become more strongly identified with college credentials, as the marginalized and poor drop away?”
    Hyper-stratification will continue, and competition at the upper-end will intensify.

    I recently heard a future scenario that was mentioned at Keil Dumsch / Matt Alex Clubhouse: A Tech Educator Ali Loghmani worried that as education moves online, Amazon and Google will eventually monopolize higher ed. I am persuaded that high-status, high-prestige firms that are very successful — and promise jobs — will crowd out lesser firms when it comes to online education. What do you think?

  5. sibyledu says:

    I strongly suspect that an important influence holding down community college enrollment is the widespread expectation of a federal free-community-college bill. A student on the fence about enrolling might well have delayed enrollment in the hope that, by September 2022, the price might be a lot lower.

    • Glen McGhee says:

      Where is your evidence? CC students — as well as high school grads — know little about Washington DC politics. They are many worlds *removed* from such bickering, and certainly don’t base their decisions on newspaper headlines.

      re: Question #5.
      I go along with Bryan’s “peak” scenario — but What Comes Next?
      “Peak” means moving past a critical point, right? Then, non-linear effects emerge, post-Covid meltdown, maybe 5 or 10 years out.
      Right now, the feeder pipeline for postsecondary ed is beset with chaos and in a state of disarray; according to David Blanchflower, we are already in a recession — And people are leaving their jobs as never (never!) before.
      The middle-class is going extinct. Workplace conditions have worsened, especially with Covid. Skills sets now have a half-life of 5 years, which means what you learned in school is worthless soon after you graduate, and you have to reinvent yourself every 10 years.
      No longer will college guarantee a set of life-long skills for employment.
      What Comes Next?

      • sibyledu says:

        Well, I don’t have evidence — in part because a negative cannot be proved — which is why I used the verb “suspect.”

        But my suspicion is based on the decline in community college enrollment in Tennessee, in the year immediately before that state introduced its Tennessee Promise program, while it was being considered in the legislature. And on anecdotal evidence that, when another state was considering a free community college program, that state’s financial aid office received a persistent strain of calls from people asking how to sign up for the program that did not yet exist.

        I won’t disagree that most high school students and graduates, like most Americans, pay little attention to the minutiae of national politics. But most Americans — including high school students and their families — pay attention to policy-making when the policies pertain to things that matter to them. I urge you not to be so dismissive of the idea that people, even (or especially) young people, care about public policy.

        • Glen McGhee says:

          It’s simply not the case that “a negative cannot be proved” — what logical fallacy are you referring to? In mathematics, theorems are disproven ALL the time. For thousands of years, negative conjectures of all kinds have reached consensus. Ex. 5+5=15.

          In terms of the cost-savings involved, it makes sense that “when another state was considering a free community college program, that state’s financial aid office received a persistent strain of calls from people asking how to sign up for the program that did not yet exist.” I don’t doubt it.

          But this is not the same as causally linking recent failed proposals by the federal administration for free CC with measured declines in enrollment. Compare parents’ and students’ awareness of Washington DC bickering with, say, their more detailed awareness of the legal status of recreational marijuana use in their STATE, and you will see the difference.

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  7. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, the College Meltdown advances and the 2026 enrollment cliff is just around the corner. For-profit colleges, community colleges, small off brand liberal arts schools, and off brand public colleges and universities will continue to suffer. Elite schools (private and public) and “robocolleges” will continue to rake in the dough.

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