Updated figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show that overall college enrollment fell to 16.9 million students this spring, down more than 600,000 students from a year ago. That one-year decline of 3.5% is the largest spring semester enrollment decrease since 2011, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released today.
The decrease was accounted for entirely by a 4.9% drop in undergraduate students, amounting to 727,000 fewer students. In fact, enrollment of graduate students increased by a healthy 4.6%, the equivalent of 124,000 more students.
Here are further details about how the enrollment decline shook out among various groups.
All higher education sectors experienced an enrollment decline.
- Community colleges continued to take the biggest hit, dropping 9.5% or 476,000 fewer students.
- Public four-year universities were down .6%.
- Private, nonprofit institutions saw a .8% drop.
- Private, for-profit schools had a 1.5% enrollment decline.
“The final estimates for spring enrollment confirm the pandemic’s severe impact on students and colleges this year,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in a press release. “How long that impact lasts will depend on how many of the missing students, particularly at community colleges, will be able to make their way back to school for the coming fall.”
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The largest enrollment decreases by percentage were in:
- New Mexico -11.4%
- Delaware -7.7%
- Michigan -6.4%
- Kansas -6.3%
- Wyoming -6.2%
Only seven states increased enrollments:
- New Hampshire increased the most on a percentage basis, jumping 10.8%. It was followed by
- Utah 4.7%
- West Virginia 2.8%
- Nebraska 2.4%
- Virginia 1.3%
- Idaho 0.4%
- Maryland 0.7%
- Enrollment of traditional college-age students, 18 to 24, declined 5%. Most of that loss was due to severe decreases at community colleges.
- Adult students, 25 or older, were down by 1.2%, which translated to a loss of nearly 75,000 students.
- Male enrollment declined by 5.5% or 400,000 students, while female enrollment decreased 2%, or 203,000 students, compared with last spring. This pattern held up for every higher education sector.
- This report did not include a breakout by student race/ethnicity.
Enrollments by college major saw some substantial year-over-year changes. For example:
- Among large major fields (at least 100,000 students) at four-year institutions, psychology and computer sciences showed the largest increases, at +4.8% and +3%, respectively.
- By contrast, several of the large majors saw decreases of 5% or more, including English (10.2%), communications and journalism (8.7%), physical sciences (7.6%), liberal arts and sciences/general studies and humanities (7.4%), and multidisciplinary studies (5%).
- For two-year college majors with more than 100,000 students, the largest enrollment decreases were in visual and performing arts (18.1%), security and protective services (16.7%), multi/interdisciplinary studies (14.1%), and liberal arts and general studies (13.8%).
- Psychology and legal professions were the only fields at two-year colleges showing an enrollment increase, at 0.8% and 4.8%, respectively.
Now, as a more complete picture of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic comes into view, several major questions still loom. Even though the enrollment declines were less severe overall than many experts anticipated, what do they suggest going forward?
Will institutions bounce back quickly as they ready themselves for a closer-to-normal fall semester, or will they continue to see enrollments sag? Are international students going to resume coming to the U.S. for their college education? Will community colleges be able to recover their footing, after suffering particularly troubling enrollment losses? Can colleges turn around the pandemic’s especially harsh deterrent to the higher education plans of low-income and minority students?
Enrollment reports for the fall will be monitored even more closely than in the past for answers to such questions. For higher education, the stakes have seldom been higher.
About the 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 the can be used to guide educational policy decisions. NSCRC analyzes data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions in the U.S., representing 97% of the nation’s postsecondary enrollment in Title IV degree-granting institutions as of 2019.