The decline in college enrollment is worsening. According to a just released report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), total postsecondary enrollment, including both undergraduate and graduate students, decreased by 4.1% – equal to about 685,000 students – in spring 2022 compared to spring 2021. Overall postsecondary enrollment now stands at about 16.2 million students.
Added to the 3.5% drop that was seen in spring 2021, the overall two-year decline in college enrollment has reached 7.4%, or nearly 1.3 million students since spring 2020. The deepening slide dashed hopes that the worst of the pandemic-era erosion of enrollment was over and, instead, raised concerns that other factors – such as growing skepticism over the value of college – may be keeping students away.
Undergraduate enrollment decreased by more than 662,000 students – or 4.7% – from spring 2021, bringing its total two-year decline, roughly corresponding to the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, to 1.4 million students, a decrease of 9.4%. The decline was even steeper than the 3.1% decrease in undergraduate numbers seen last fall.
Graduate student enrollment was off by only -.8%, a loss of slightly more than 22,000 students. But that loss contrasts with an increase in graduate school enrollment in spring 2021 of 4.6%.
Higher Education Sectors
All institutional sectors experienced enrollment declines this spring, but their severity varied considerably.
- Public community colleges and four-year institutions saw a combined drop of more than 604,000 students, or a 5% decline.
- Community colleges were again hit the hardest, losing about 351,000 students, a 7.8% decrease over last spring. The total loss in community college enrollment since spring 2020 has now reached 827,000 students.
- Public four-year college enrollment was down 3.4%.
- Private four-year institutions saw their enrollment drop 1.7%.
- Private for-profit colleges, the smallest higher ed sector, had a .2% decline.
One Bright Spot
The one bright spot to be found in the report is that first-time, first-year enrollment by undergraduate students increased 4.2% this spring, resulting in a gain of 13,700 students. That increase compares to a decline of 3.5%, or 11,800 students, in spring 2021. Whether this increase augurs for anything more than a temporary turnaround in enrollment remains to be seen. The fall semester, where much larger number of first-time students enroll, will tell a more complete story.
Nearly 340,000 freshmen enrolled for the first time this spring, with almost six out of 10 starting at a community college. Community college freshmen increased by 6,000 students or 3.1%, after a decline the previous spring of 23,000 students, a 10.7% loss. Public four-year colleges reported an increase in freshmen of 7,300 students, a gain of 10.8%.
“College enrollment declines appear to be worsening,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Although there may be some signs of a nascent recovery, particularly in a slight increase of first-year students, the numbers are small, and it remains to be seen whether they will translate into a larger freshman recovery in the coming fall.”
Enrollment By Student Characteristics:
- Enrollment of full-time students decreased by 3.8% (403,000 students), while part-timers decreased 4.5% (282,000 students).
- Enrollment of women dropped 4.6%, while among men the decrease was 3.3%. The decrease for women is more than double the loss from the previous year, bringing the two-year, total enrollment decline to 665,000 female students. Female enrollment declined the most at community colleges (-9.2% or 251,000 fewer women versus 100,000 or 5.6% fewer men). Across all sectors, men declined by more than 220,000 students.
- Enrollment of students over age 24 fell by 5.8%, compared to a 3.2% drop among traditional college-aged students (18-24) and a 2% slide among students younger than 18.
The only breakout in the report by race and ethnicity was for the 339,286 students who first enrolled in college in spring 2022. Within that first-year group, Asian and Latinx freshman enrollment grew by 15% and +4% respectively, compared to spring 2021. In contrast, white enrollment increased by only .9%, and Black freshman enrollment declined by 6.5% or 2,600 students.
Enrollment By Majors
Business, healthcare, and liberal arts continue to be the most common undergraduate majors for both four-year and two-year college students.
Most of the top 10 undergraduate majors at four-year institutions showed relatively flat enrollment or continued declines, but there were a few notable exceptions. Computer sciences increased by 7.8%, visual and performing arts majors were up 5.7% and psychology majors increased 4%. The largest declines among the most popular majors were in liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities (-4.2%) and social sciences (-2.3%).
Among popular majors at two-year colleges, skilled trades program enrollment increased, including gains in mechanic and repair technologies (+11.5%, 9,950 students), personal and culinary services (+12.7%, 6,170 students), construction trades (+19.3%, 11,140 students), and precision and production (+16.7%, 7,740 students). However, despite those increases, it was only construction majors where the growth was sufficient to yield a return to pre-pandemic levels of enrollment.
The biggest percentage drop in two-year sector majors was in security and protective services, which saw a decrease of 3.9%. The biggest absolute enrollment decline was in the physical sciences, where almost 5,000 fewer students enrolled in those majors this spring compared to last.
Enrollment By States
While postsecondary enrollment continued to drop across the nation, several states reported growth because, according to NSCRC officials, students enrolling in primarily online institutions based in these states have been increasing. In general, enrollment declines tended to be less severe in the southern region and more steep in the midwest and northeast parts of the nation.
Indiana (10.7%), Colorado (9%), and New Hampshire (8.2%) showed the largest percentage gains in enrollment; Michigan (-15.5%), California (-8.1%) and Vermont and Washington (-7.2%) had the largest percentage declines.
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.