How is American higher education enrollment doing now, in fall 2022?
A few hours ago the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published the first account of its enrollment data for this term. For some, perhaps many people, this is the first post-pandemic semester, and that gives rise to the question: did enrollment rebound after its COVID-19 drops? That had been a brutal period, overall, as colleges and universities suffered a more than 7% decline after 2019.
Here I’ll offer a summary of the new findings along with some reflections. For sources, I’m working from this web publication, in addition to a press release and news briefing.
tl;dr version – enrollment declined overall, again, this time by 1.1%. The good news: the rate of decline is less steep than it has been during the two prior COVID years.
Let’s break it down in detail.
Note: this is the Clearinghouse’s first release for fall data. They will add and refine data over the next two months. I’ll host their research lead on the Future Trends Forum to discuss it later this year.
Undergraduate and graduate schools both saw declines. Grad schools experienced a 1% dip while undergraduates declined by 1.1%. While negative, these numbers are not so bad as the 2.1 and 3.4% drops during pandemic fall terms (2020 and 2021, respectively).
Every sector of higher ed saw student numbers shrink: “a drop of 1.6% at public four-years; 0.9% at private nonprofits; and 2.5% at private for-profits.” But notice this very interesting detail about community colleges: “Declines at community colleges have slowed, with only a 0.4% enrollment loss compared to fall 2021, driven by an 11.5% jump in dual-enrolled high school students.” That means declines for 4-year schools are steeper than at 2-years.
Broken down by service sector, Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) saw a decline of “-1.2% this fall versus -4.8% last fall, for total two-year losses of 6%.” However, HBCUs did unusually well with undergrads:
Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ undergraduate enrollment grew 2.5% this fall, which reversed declines of 1.7% in fall 2021. This growth was driven by a 6.6% increase in freshmen enrolling at HBCUs.
Mostly online institutions continued to do well, enjoying a 3.2% rise compared to fall 2021. One key detail: “This was largely driven by younger students aged 18-20, for whom enrollment growth totaled 23.4% over two years since fall 2020.” (The Clearinghouse cautions us that those numbers are small and early.)
By population, many groups’ enrollment declined, but not all. Traditional-age undergraduates and Latino students rose by 0.5% and 1.2%, respectively. Asians and international students grew at private, nonprofit schools. Community colleges saw rises from every population except whites:
Geographically, the numbers are uneven, as usual. The midwest and northeast saw steeper declines than in the south and west.
“The steepest declines (-4.3% to -5.2%) were in Alaska, Michigan, Kansas, Missouri, and Nevada, while New Hampshire, New Mexico, and South Carolina gained (+3.7% to +6.8%).” I suspect that NH gain was due to Southern New Hampshire’s online work.
Further, some states suffered especially in grad school numbers:
Graduate enrollment is down in 26 states, with Alaska, Maine, Montana, Mississippi, Nebraska, California, Louisiana, Maryland, and Arkansas all experiencing declines of more than 4% this fall compared to the previous year.
First-year student numbers dropped in general, which has implications for the next half-decade of classes:
freshmen enrollment declined by 1.5% overall. Freshmen numbers declined in all four-year sectors, led by private nonprofits dropping 3.1%, publics declining 2.4%, and private for-profits losing 0.9%. Highly selective institutions saw the largest freshmen declines this fall of 5.6% compared to a 10.7% gain in fall 2021.
Again, community colleges stood out, as they “saw a 0.9% increase this fall, driving an upward trend of 1% freshmen growth at community colleges since fall 2020.”
In terms of course of study, the report only showed some majors aggregated together by popularity, but the findings are still noteworthy. Everything dropped – except computer science, which continued to boom:
Degrees offered or sought showed an interesting emergence of certificates (undergrad and graduate) as growing concerns, while all other degree forms declined, in comparison with last fall semester:
What does this mean for the future of education?
First, to state what should be obvious: the supermajority of colleges and universities depend on student fees (tuition most of all, plus fees, room and board, etc.) for their financial existence. To the extent a given campus sees dwindling student numbers, it can suffer economically. That can lead to all kinds of changes, from increased fund-raising and entrepreneurial activity to budget and job cuts.
Second, the slight decline in grad school numbers may point to another pandemic shift. From the press release: “[the drop] reverses last year’s 2.7% gain. This may signal the
end of the pandemic-related influxes of post-baccalaureate students.” In other words, we enjoyed some grad school boosts over the past two years, presumably as people either sought grad school to improve their labor market standing or to study medicine/public health to fight the pandemic. That positive bump may now be over. One qualification: “However, graduate enrollment is still above pre-pandemic levels, with a total two-year change of 1.6% from fall 2020.”
Third, a 1% decline is shallower than the pandemic years, which may lead us to conclude the COVID shrinkage is done. But is closer to what higher education experienced from 2013 on. If this data holds, especially into spring 2023, we might see the end of the COVID drop and a return to what I’ve called the Peak Higher Education scenario (first published in 2013). In the press briefing director Shapiro said that enrollment’s failure to rebound after the first two pandemic years was surprising, and not a good signL
I certainly wouldn’t call this a recovery. I think we’re seeing smaller declines. But when you’re in a deep hole and you’re only digging a tiny bit further… it is not really good news.
An Inside Higher Ed article avers that “enrollment fell for the fifth semester in a row, dampening those hopes.” The Washington Post claims “College enrollment declines for third straight year since pandemic.” In reality, enrollment has fallen for nearly a decade.
Fourth, the Clearinghouse report only shows comparative, not absolute data. I’d like to see those stats to run comparisons to previous years.
Fifth, if the midwest and northeast continue to see numbers decline, that could reveal the impacts of their demographic transitions – i.e., fewer children.
Sixth, Douglas Shapiro noted in a press conference that undergraduate numbers show the past two years’ depression in first-year students is continuing to have an impact. To make a real enrollment recovery we would have needed “a massive upsurge” in first-year students… and even then we’d have years of smaller classes.
Seventh, the decline in international numbers is interesting. Mikyung Ryu, the Clearinghouse director of research publications, pointed out a huge gap between graduate enrollment (increasing) and undergrad (sinking).
Eighth, the persistent growth in online class-taking is very worth noting. Perhaps more students learned about online learning during the pandemic.
That continued growth in online enrollments may have strategic effects on college and university strategy. We could see some campuses expanding their distance learning programs to capture these students. We could also see some institutions where online offerings become profit centers, supporting their in-person wings.
Ninth, community colleges’ enrollment gains this term are great, but nowhere near enough to make up for that sector’s enormous losses over the past few years.
Tenth, that decline in allied health majors is a concern, not least because it reveals horrible working conditions. It’s also a problem as American health care needs will just increase due to long COVID and the population aging.
Eleventh: certificate programs continue to do well, doing better than all other degree types compared with fall 2021. Will we see campuses directing more resources in this direction?
I have more questions. What impact did Biden’s student loan forgiveness initiative have? How did absolute numbers fare? Can we break things down more finely by academic majors? Minus high school dual enrollment, how do community college numbers look?
Over to you for your thoughts. And I look forward to the next release. Thanks to the Clearinghouse for doing this important work.
Great job clarifying the numbers and good guesses about the implications. So good to have someone dive in and pull out the tasty fish that matter, Bob
You mention, correctly of course, that demographics is a factor — I’d be curious if the decline in enrollment is less than would be projected from demographic trends, the same as, or more than would be projected. This would seem to be an important analytic.
I agree with you, Trent.
But I’m also interested in the statistical “noise” here — how much of this is natural variation, and how do we distinguish what isn’t (i.e., what constitutes a trend? and for whom? Why?)
Also, how does this correlate with marketing budgets among schools?
If the past teaches us anything, it’s that schools will always come up with a gimmick to survive: in the past we had Land Grant and denominational Colleges, the offering of Electives over the Classical curriculum, accreditation, Carnegie pensions (and credits), departmentalization for new disciplines (English, chemistry, physics, etc), the rise of professionalization (see Bledstein on this), state-licensing, importation of German research model, bureaucratization (see Vesey’s history of higher education), and maybe even credential inflation and credentialism that works to the benefit of the schools.
As Glen McGhee and I discovered, enrollment declines since 2011 have been enormous, worthy of the term “college meltdown.” This phenomenon has been most visible with the closing of for-profit colleges and small private universities, and downsizing at regional public universities. To make matters worse, the 2026 enrollment cliff, a ripple effect of the Great Recession, is less than 4 years away.
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