About one month into the fall 2020 semester, U.S. undergraduate enrollment has now slipped 4% below last year’s level, and the increase in graduate enrollment seen earlier in the fall has slowed to 2.7%, according to the latest data by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. At the present time, overall postsecondary enrollment is down 3% compared to the same time last year.

The new numbers represent a further enrollment drop from last month when preliminary national figures showed undergraduate enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities down by 2.5% and graduate student enrollment up 3.9%. At that time (September 10), postsecondary enrollment as a whole had declined 1.8%, compared to the same time last year (The earlier data were gathered from 629 schools, which was 22% of the institutions that report to the Clearinghouse.)

“With more data, the downward trends identified in September’s First Look report appear steeper, while also emerging for more states and student groups,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Most strikingly, freshman students are by far the biggest decline of any group from last year, with a decrease of 16.1% nationally and a 22.7% drop at community colleges in particular. First-time students account for 69% of the total drop in undergraduate enrollment.”

This second update for the fall 2020 series, Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information, was based on 9.2 million students, with approximately 54% of postsecondary institutions having reported to the Clearinghouse, as of Sept. 24. The next update is scheduled to be released Nov. 12.

Here are some additional results:

Undergraduate enrollment is down at all types of institutions, with the exception of private, for-profit four-year colleges.

  • Community colleges continue to suffer the largest declines with a decrease of 9.4%, a drop that’s nearly nine times their pre-pandemic decrease for fall 2019 compared to fall 2018. The number of freshmen dropped 22.7% at community colleges.
  • Undergraduate enrollment at public four-year colleges decreased 1.4%, and private nonprofit four-year colleges saw a drop of 2.0%.
  • Freshmen enrollments, however, dropped much more sharply: – 13.7% at public four-years and – 11.8% at private nonprofit schools. 
  • For-profit four-year college enrollment was 3% higher than last fall. 
  • At primarily online institutions (schools where more than 90% of students enrolled exclusively online before the pandemic), enrollments grew at both the undergraduate and graduate levels (+6.8% and +7.2%, respectively), Adult students age 25 and older, who comprise most of the undergraduates at these institutions increased 5.5%, a strong reversal of the 6.3% decline in the year prior to the pandemic.

All undergraduate demographic groups showed enrollment declines. 

  • American Indian and Native Alaskan students suffered the sharpest decline of all undergraduates (-10.7%), followed by Black students (-7.9%), White students (-7.6%), Hispanic students (-6.1%), and Asian students (-4.0%).
  • A double-digit drop continued for international undergraduates (-13.7%). 
  • Male undergraduate enrollment fell by three times the rate of female enrollment (-6.4% vs. -2.2%). 
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) followed the overall national trends for undergraduates, with somewhat larger declines among private nonprofit four-year HBCUs and smaller drops among public two-year HBCUs. 

Graduate enrollment grew at most types of institutions and across all racial/ethnic groups, except for international students.

  • Enrollment was up 4.2% at public universities and 9.3% at for-profit institutions. It was down a mere .1% at private, nonprofit institutions.
  • Hispanic graduate enrollment was up 14.2%.
  • Black graduate students increased by 9.3%.
  • International graduate enrollment declined 7.6%.

Undergraduate enrollment fell across all regions, with the Midwest showing the largest decrease (-5.7%) followed by the West (-3.9%), South (-3.6%) and Northeast (-3.4%).

  • Among 47 states for which sufficient data were available, only five states – Nebraska, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia – enrolled more undergraduates than they did last fall. The other 42 states experienced declines, ranging from -0.4% to -15.8%. 
  • Twenty-six states had enrollment drops of more than the national average of 4%, including three with double-digit drops – Rhode Island (-15.8%), New Mexico (-10.6%), and Michigan (-9.7%).
  • Graduate enrollment was up in 38 states, with 24 states exceeding the 2.7% national growth rate. Graduate enrollment increases were largest in Arizona and Mississippi, both growing 16% or more over fall 2019.  

This fall marks the ninth in a row where American colleges and universities have suffered overall undergraduate enrollment declines. A decrease was expected this fall – both because of the general trend fueled by demographic changes but also because of the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on student behavior. In fact, although the decrease has grown larger over the past month, it still is less than many higher education officials expected. But other aspects of the news are not encouraging.

What is particularly concerning in the latest figures is the steep – 16% – drop in freshman enrollment. That’s an astounding decline that will be felt in institutional pocketbooks for years to come as the undergraduate pipeline shrinks. In addition, net tuition revenue is being hit hard by the double-digit decrease in international students, most of whom pay greater tuition than the average undergraduate at least at public universities. And finally, it’s unknown how much more colleges might be discounting their tuition this fall in an effort to woo students, potentially lowering net tuition even further. Taken together, these factors add up to a worrisome revenue picture that may still worsen in the months to come.

The Clearinghouse will release final fall enrollment numbers in December.



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