Is Higher Education Enrollment Stabilizing?

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There has been a sharp and persistent decline in the number of Americans attending university over the last 10 years. Experts believe that a few leading 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.

But a recent National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) study found that fall undergraduate enrollment began to stabilize in 2022, contracting by only 0.6% or about 94,000 fewer students, compared to fall 2021. 

However, postsecondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, down about 1.23 million undergraduates and 1.11 million total undergraduate and graduate enrollment compared to fall 2019.

Enrollment by Sector

Undergraduate enrollment grew by .4% at community colleges or 16,700 students. This increase was primarily due to a surge in dual enrollment and represented a notable turnaround from the 6.7% enrollment loss the year prior. 

Additionally, private for-profit four-year institutions added 29,000 students, a gain of 5.0% from fall 2021. 

While private, nonprofit four-year institutions saw a small drop of .1% or 2,500 fewer students compared to a more considerable decline of 1.6% the previous year. And public four-year colleges experienced larger enrollment losses, dropping another 1.4%, or 88,000 students.

Notably, male undergraduate enrollments bumped slightly (+0.2%, +15,000 students), while female enrollment decreased (-1.5%, -122,000 students). This pattern continued the trend of improved enrollments for men relative to women, first noted in the fall of 2021.

Additionally, Latinx and Asian undergraduate enrollments increased by 1.6% and 1.8%, respectively. Those gains contrasted with declines among white (-3.6%), Black (-1.8%), and Native American students (-1.6%).

“It is encouraging to start seeing signs of a recovery in the numbers of new freshmen,” Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the NSCRC, said in a press release about the study. “Although freshmen classes are still well below pre-pandemic levels, especially at community colleges, the fact that they are swinging upward in all sectors is a positive indicator for the future.”

Regional Differences

On average, states in the Northeast and Midwest saw overall undergraduate enrollment declines at about twice the national rate, losing 24,000 (-1.1%) and 34,000 (-1.2%) undergraduates, respectively, according to a Forbes article

Additionally, undergraduate enrollment grew in the West (+0.5%, 20,000 students) and the South (+0.2%, 8,000 students).

Fall enrollment began to stabilize in 2022, with undergraduate enrollment growing by .4% at community colleges (16,700 students) and private for-profit institutions gaining 29,000 students (5.0%).


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