There has been a sharp and persistent decline in the number of Americans attending college and universities over the last 10 years. Experts believe that a few main causes of this low enrollment include cost, declining birth rates, the widespread availability of jobs, and greater public skepticism of the need for higher education.
Enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been trending downward since about 2012. A handful of reports indicate that college enrollment across the country experienced a decline of close to one million between 2011-2013.
And in 2018, Nathan D. Grawe, a professor of social sciences at Carleton college, predicted enrollment dropping in the Northeast and Midwest by about 5% by the mid-2020s. He also noted that the economic downturn of 2008 led many people to delay starting families. This impact, starting in 2026, could mean a loss of 15% of the typical college-going population.
At the same time, the Higher Education Demand Index (HEDI) forecasted 10% fewer college-going students by 2029.
Although low enrollment has been an obstacle for years, the COVID-19 pandemic turbocharged the declines at the undergrad level.
Total undergraduate enrollment dropped by nearly 1.4 million (9.4%) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the two-year decline in college enrollment has reached 7.4% (1.3 million students).
Notably, the nation's community colleges are continuing to feel the bulk of the decline, with a 13% enrollment drop over the course of the pandemic.
And most recently, a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) study discovered that total postsecondary enrollment, including both undergraduate and graduate students, decreased by 4.1% (about 685,000 students) from spring 2021 to spring 2022.
“This issue is more than just the pandemic to me; it’s more than just low-income communities that are primarily served by community colleges,” Doug Shapiro, NSCRC director, told the New York Times. “There is a broader question about the value of college and particular concerns about student debt and paying for college and potential labor market returns.”
Low Enrollment Rate Among Underprivileged Students
Although the high school graduate population is diversifying, the enrollment drop is even larger across the board for Hispanic and Latino students, as well as low-income students.
According to the NSCRC, the most affected demographic are children from low-income families. In 2021, the center reported “unprecedented” declines in the number of students from high-poverty or low-income high schools who go onto higher education.
These underprivileged students face the largest barriers in college enrollment and are left even further behind when they do not have a support system to help them through the college admissions process.
US News reported that enrollment among Black freshmen declined by 6.5%, an 18.7% decrease (8,400), since spring 2020.
“The college-going rates are dropping just because of who’s now in the pool,” David Strauss, enrollment expert and college consultant at the Art & Science Group, said in a Chronicle of Higher Education press release. “The first whammy is that the number of students graduating from high school is down and has been going down for quite some time in most areas of the country.”
“The double whammy is college-going rates: If the percentages go down, then the pool shrinks even more. And the triple whammy is the things that have been knocked off track by the pandemic, or have caused people to think of alternatives because of the pandemic,” Strauss continued.
How Colleges, Universities Can Help Combat Declining Enrollment Rates
When fewer people go to college, fewer people graduate with the skills, credentials, and degrees necessary for a higher-paying job. These low enrollment numbers reverberate throughout the entire US economy on many levels: the individual, the community, businesses, and society as a whole.
Some colleges are starting up reentry programs and creating new incentives to enroll. For example, Valencia College in Orlando, FL, waived application fees, extended deadlines, and allowed returning students to take classes for free.
Colleges and universities can also diversify their revenue streams and pursue different models to increase enrollments in graduate programs and adult learning programs by opening satellite campuses, launching online and hybrid models, and building relationships with corporations to provide training for employees.
But Shapiro stated that it is also on the communities to "make the case that college offerings are worthwhile and that students must invest in their future employability, in their skills, and in their training."