Higher education enrollment rates show little to no signs of recovery from the steep drops that occurred last year due to COVID-19, new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show.
Undergraduate enrollment continued to decline, falling by 3.2% since fall 2020, virtually mirroring last fall’s drop of 3.4% and combining for a 6.5% drop from 2019 pre-pandemic levels.
“Enrollments are not getting better,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said. “They’re still getting worse.”
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Community colleges remained the hardest hit sector, with enrollment dropping 5.6%, less than the 9% gutting that the two-year colleges experienced last year. But combined, it represents a severe 14% decline compared to 2019.
“These are the students who would normally be enrolling in droves during a recession, and then we expect them to go back to work as the job market improves,” Shapiro said. “But this time, it’s like the entire crest of that wave got swallowed up by the pandemic and what we’re seeing here is two troughs, one after the other instead. There was simply no upside from the recession, just a downside that we’re seeing now from the recovery – or at least the recovery in the job market.”
The early analysis of enrollment represents figures reported by roughly half of the country’s postsecondary institutions as of Sept. 23. And while they could shift as more schools report their enrollment data over the next month, the current data represents more than 8 million students.
“If this current rate of decline, this 6 1/2 percent, were to hold up, it would be the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years in the U.S,” Shapiro said. Education Department data going back to 1970 shows the previous worst two-year decline occurred from 2011 to 2013, when enrollment dropped 3.3%.
“That’s when we were coming off of all-time highs from the Great Recession, so those declines weren’t so painful,” he said. “These declines that we are seeing today are from an already depressed level of enrollment.”
Other worrisome trends abound: Public four-year enrollment fell more this fall than last fall, 2.3% compared to 0.8%. And at colleges and universities that are primarily online, undergraduate and graduate enrollments dropped by 5.4% and 13.6%, respectively, virtually erasing the nearly 9% enrollment increases both sectors experienced last year.
Undergraduates at private nonprofit four-years fared better, with enrollment falling only 0.7% compared to last year.
Freshman enrollment, which higher education experts predicted would bounce back after a pandemic year that resulted in many students taking a so-called gap year before beginning their studies, also continued to fall, this time by 3.1%. Though the rate of decline is less than one-third that of the previous fall, analysts at the clearinghouse underscored that it “remains far from having stabilized.”
Notably, there was a sharp disparity within the private and public four-year colleges and universities, with only the “highly selective” schools in each sector recording increases in enrollment.
Highly selective private nonprofit schools notched a 4.3% enrollment increase, surpassing pre-pandemic levels and now experiencing a 1.8% enrollment increase compared to 2019. Meanwhile, enrollment at other private nonprofits – those considered “very competitive,” “competitive” and “less selective” – declined anywhere from 1.8% to 2.5%. And highly selective public universities, including the state flagships, increased 1% while enrollment at other public universities fell anywhere from 2.8% to 5.7%. Public colleges and universities considered “less selective” are currently enrolling 8% less students now than they did before the pandemic.
“It was quite striking to see that trend as you go down the selectivity scale,” Shapiro said. “The biggest questions are when or if ever will some of the students who we lost in the last two years start coming back? Will they be able to get back into the educational pipeline?”
“Right now, a lot of young people seem to be going to work instead of going to college,” he continued, noting that was especially true for students from low-income families who have been lured away from higher education by the current labor market. “These students have always been the most on the margin between college and the workforce and also the most powerfully pulled away by the need to support their families through hard times. I think trying to understand how those students might ever get back to the college path is really important. It’s important to our future workforce.”