College and university enrollment fell even more steeply this fall, continuing a long term trend

How is college and university enrollment currently changing as a result of fall conditions?  Have the pandemic and recession sent more people to campus?

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoIn late September the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center offered its first pass at presenting fall 2020 enrollment data.  It showed an increase in graduate students attending American higher ed and a larger decrease in undergrads, together yielding a 1.9% overall downturn.

Today the Clearinghouse released a new presentation, with more and updated data, and it paints a darker picture.

Here I’ll summarize what I see as key findings, then offer some of my own thoughts.

tl;dr version – in fall 2020 American higher ed enrollment declined more steeply than it appeared last month.


Across the entire postsecondary sector, total student enrollment “is down 3.0 percent as of September 24.”  Grad enrollment rose 2.7%, a bright spot, while undergraduate dropped 4%.  (The September report had total enrollment down 1.8%, with undergrads down 2.5%.)

enrollment undergrad 2020 fall_Clearinghouse 2020 Oct 15

Note the for-profit gain. Recall that 2019 was also a term in decline.

The number of first-year students in particular saw a very significant decline:

[F]irst-time students are by far the biggest decline of any student group from last year (-16.1% nationwide and -22.7% at community colleges).

That first-year drop cut deeply into every sector of American higher ed, but one.  Here’s a nice chart from the Wall Street Journal:

enrollment by institutional type fall 2020_WSJ

As that chart shows, community colleges are being hit much harder than anyone else, overall:

Community colleges continue to suffer the most with a decrease of 9.4% percent. Community colleges’ enrollment decline is now nearly nine times their pre-pandemic loss rate (-1.1% for fall 2019 compared to fall 2018). Even more concerning, the number of freshmen also dropped most drastically at community colleges (-22.7%).

You can see signs of the community college crisis in which undergrad degrees are being taken, with certifications and associates’ falling steeply, while bachelors’ are almost stable:

enrollment by degree 2020 fall_Clearinghouse 2020 Oct 15

Recall that community colleges often enroll more students in recessions.  That’s because we identify them most closely with job skills, and recessions, like the one we’re in now, mean higher unemployment.  But this isn’t happening now.

In Insider Higher Ed Doug Shapiro – the Clearinghouse’s executive director and very fine Future Trends Forum guest – observes:

But it’s possible [that decline will continue], Shapiro said, because the students that community colleges serve are most likely to face challenges with access to technology, making online learning difficult. It’s also hard to translate vocational programs to remote formats.

In contrast, “[p]ublic four-year and private nonprofit four-year colleges show a much smaller drop (-1.4% and – 2.0%, respectively).”  And for-profits have actually turned a corner, after years of disaster: “As the only exception, for-profit four-year colleges are running 3% higher than last fall.”

International student numbers are seriously low: “A double-digit drop continued for international undergraduates (-13.7%)… International graduate enrollment declined 7.6%.”

Institutions that normally teach entirely or almost entirely online are doing just fine:

enrollment online schools_ 2020 fall_Clearinghouse 2020 Oct 15

Demographically, certain patterns are clear by race and gender.  Every race and ethnicity saw a decline, without exception:

American Indian and Native Alaskan students suffered the sharpest decline of all racial/ethnic undergraduate students (-10.7%), followed by Black students (-7.9%), White students (-7.6%), Hispanic students (-6.1%), and Asian students (-4.0%)…

Preliminary data shows that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) track closely the national trends for undergraduates overall, with somewhat more larger declines among private nonprofit four-year HBCUs and smaller drops among public two-year HBCUs.

Doug Shapiro notes: “We expected to see steeper declines among Black, Native American and Hispanic students.”

And male enrollment dropped by much more than female:

enrollment by age and gender 2020 fall_Clearinghouse 2020 Oct 15

Male undergraduate enrollment fell by three times the rate of female enrollment (-6.4% vs. -2.2%)…

One bright spot is the demographics of grad schools: “Graduate enrollment grew across all racial/ethnic groups, particularly Hispanic and Black students (14.2% and 9.3%, respectively).”

Geographically, one part of the United States saw a steeper enrollment decline than the rest: “the Midwest suffered the most (-5.7%) followed by the West (-3.9%), South (-3.6%) and Northeast (-3.4%).”


As any good piece of research does, this report causes me to ask more questions.  What are the total absolute numbers?  Any sense of changes by academic subject?

That first-year student drop is dismaying.  Think about the ripple effects on next year’s class, and the next, and the next.  Doug Shapiro again:

​”These declines are so large and so fast, and they’re so concentrated on first-year students who may never make it back,” he said. “​If there’s not a sudden rebound where they all come back in the spring — I don’t see that happening — I think many of these students will never make it back.”

How much of this decline is due to COVID-19, and how much to the relentless enrollment decline lasting nearly a decade?  I’m willing to bet the community college drop owes much to the pandemic, given how shockingly that goes against the usual economic pattern of increased attendance. Beyond CCs, the decline in non-profits looks close to the historical decline trajectory I’ve been tracking.

The international student number is a serious hit to the many schools depending on overseas enrollment.  I’d really like to see breakdowns by nation.  How much is due to the worsening US-China relationship?  Is India, normally the second-highest contributor of students to the US, now the leader?

The gender divide indicates a strengthened majority status for women as college and university students.

For-profits are enjoying a rebirth, it seems.  At the undergrad level they alone saw growth.  And at the grad level, a roaring 9.3% rise.  This is enormously important.  First, it shows the Obama-era collapse of that sector has clearly ended.  A second for-profit growth period may now be starting up.  Further, it means that for-profits are eating community colleges’ lunch.  I base this view on the community college plummet, and also on Tressie McMillan Cottom’s research identifying that for-profits’ main competitor is community colleges.

I worry that this latest report won’t get much traction, due to American culture in general and around higher ed in particular.  First, the geographical focus of loss is in the Midwest, an area the rest of the country tries to forget.  Second, while community colleges are the biggest segment within the higher ed ecosystem, they are scarcely talked about within the rest of academia.  So it’ll be easy for many to dismiss this report.

Today’s data report is bad news for colleges and universities that depend primarily on tuition for revenue – i.e., the supermajority of them.  Remember that big endowments are quite rare, and that state governments have been cutting public higher ed support since the 20th century. So American higher ed will be even more financially stressed.

For those reading here who are new to my work, hello!  I view this data as another iteration of a long-running decline in both higher ed enrollment and sustainability.  I’ve tracked the story of declining enrollment on this blog for almost a decade. I’ve also written about it in my most recent book, Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education, (Johns Hopkins University Press) (Amazon). This trend is vital for understanding American higher ed, especially its strategic choices.  The historical fact is that America grew higher education enrollment for a generation, from around 1980 to 2012.  That was a great achievement.  But 2012 was the peak, and we’ve fallen away from it every year – every semester, in fact.

The blow to community colleges is very hard.  I don’t think this will garner much attention, but CCs are the biggest sector within American higher ed.  The drop could push some to merge and/or close programs or even shut down entirely.

Final point: if the United States is serious about expanding higher education access, we are not only failing, but continuing to fail.  We are now locked in a solid, established failure trend of enrollment decline. We’ve been failing at this for nearly a decade, despite a combination of policies, lots of money, administrative actions, technologies, pedagogical and curricular offerings.

Further, if we are serious about wanting to give underrepresented populations that post-secondary experience, we are seriously failing at that goal.

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1 Response to College and university enrollment fell even more steeply this fall, continuing a long term trend

  1. “[F]irst-time students are by far the biggest decline of any student group from last year (-16.1% nationwide and -22.7% at community colleges).”

    How much of this will be the so-called “gap year” effect I’ve heard so frequently, meaning that this drop in enrollment will surge post-pandemic… or how much will be students that never go to college after losing the momentum of continuing education?

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