Education

College Undergraduate Enrollment Has Decreased By More Than One Million Students Since 2019


Undergraduate enrollment decreased by 465,300 students, or 3.1%, in fall, 2021 compared to fall, 2020. That decline has brought the total enrollment slide to 1,025,600 undergraduates since fall, 20119, a period of time roughly corresponding to the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S.

The figures come from a new report released today by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). Overall, national enrollment – counting both undergraduate and graduate students – decreased by 2.7% or 476,100 students in fall 2021, for a total two-year decline of 5.1% or 937,500 students since the approximate onset of the pandemic.

The enrollment losses occurred in almost all parts of the country and among all categories of students. In fact, total fall enrollment increased in only four states: Arizona (1.6%), Colorado (1.1%), New Hampshire (9.3%), and South Carolina (1.1%).

“Our final look at fall 2021 enrollment shows undergraduates continuing to sit out in droves as colleges navigate yet another year of COVID-19,” said Doug Shapiro, NSCRC Executive Director. “Without a dramatic re-engagement in their education, the potential loss to these students’ earnings and futures is significant, which will greatly impact the nation as a whole in years to come.”

Higher Education Sectors

Undergraduate enrollment declined across all of higher education’s major sectors.

  • Private, for-profit four-year colleges sustained the biggest percentage drop (-11.1% or 65,500 students).
  • Public four-year institutions lost the largest number of students (251,400), which was equal to a 3.8% decline compared to the previous year.
  • The decrease was smallest at private, nonprofit four-year institutions, which saw a loss of 58,700 students (2.2%) last fall.
  • Community colleges suffered a loss of 161,800 students (-3.4%) for fall, 2021 compared to fall, 2020. Public two-year colleges remain the hardest hit sector since the start of the pandemic, with a loss of 706,100 students (-13.2%) since 2019. 

Freshman Enrollment A Relative Bright Spot

One small bit of good news was freshman enrollment, which was up about 0.4% or 8,100 students from 2020. Even with this gain, there were still 213,400 fewer freshman in fall, 2021 compared to their pre-pandemic enrollment level in fall 2019.

  • Private, nonprofit colleges had the largest fall, 2021 freshmen increase with a 2.9%, or 11,600 student, gain.
  • Public two-year colleges gained 3,000 freshman students (.4%).
  • Freshman enrollment was down only .5% at public four-year institutions.
  • Freshman enrollment declined a dramatic 21.1% at private, for-profits schools.

Coupled with initial estimates from the Common App that college applications have increased during the current year, the freshman numbers offer a glimmer of hope for at least a slight undergraduate enrollment recovery next year.   

Student Differences

Adult students (age 24 and older) experienced the sharpest enrollment decline (3.4% or 210,800 students), which occurred largely at four-year institutions. Traditional college-age student enrollment was off 2.4%, and among the relatively small group of students 18 and younger, the enrollment loss was 1.1%.

Part-time student enrollment dropped 2.4%, while enrollment by full-time students was down 2.9%,

Enrollment of men was down 2.2%, while enrollment of women decreased 3.0%.

The report did not breakout figures by student race/ethnicity.

Enrollments By Major

Enrollments in each of the five largest undergraduate major at four-year colleges were down sharply.

  • Liberal Arts declined the most (7.6%), followed by Health Professions (4.8%), Biology and Biomedical Sciences (4.2%), Engineering (3.6%), and Business, Management, Marketing and related fields (3.6%).
  • Two popular majors – Computer Sciences and Psychology – saw modest increases of 1.3% and 2.5%, respectively.

Among the five largest two-year college majors:

  • Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services declined the most (-7.4%), followed by Liberal Arts (-5.0%), Health Professions -(2.2%), and Business, Management, Marketing and related fields (-.6%).
  • Computer Sciences enrollments increased 2.9% at two-year colleges.

About NSCRC

The NSCRC is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. It collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations to gather accurate longitudinal data that can be used to guide educational policy decisions.

NSCRC analyzes data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97% of the nation’s postsecondary enrollment in Title IV degree-granting institutions in the U.S., as of 2018.

The latest report is part of NSCRC’s Current Term Enrollment Estimates Report Series, which provides national enrollment estimates based on the entire Clearinghouse universe of institutions.



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