Enrollment declines continue to plague colleges and universities across the U.S., with students of color disproportionately affected.

What Enrollment Declines Really Mean for Higher Ed


  • Even prior to COVID-19, fewer students were enrolling in college each year in the U.S.
  • Undergraduate enrollment is down nearly 6.5% from five years ago.
  • Students of color account for the majority of college enrollment slumps.
  • Experts believe changes to college affordability are key to enrollment rising again.

Sharp declines in undergraduate enrollment have swept universities across the country. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment at institutions at all levels was falling each year. Between the 2013-14 and 2018-19 academic years, total undergraduate enrollment across all U.S. higher education institutions decreased 6.5%.

These drops come as no surprise. As college becomes less and less affordable, more prospective students are beginning to contemplate their financial realities.

And COVID-19 has merely accelerated this trend. Amid shutdowns, scarce social opportunities, and a general inability to enjoy a traditional college experience, more students opted not to immediately further their education.

According to a BestColleges survey from earlier this year, at least 80% of students believe their education has been disrupted due to pandemic-related changes, while 35% believe these changes will have a lasting impact on their mental health.

According to a recent BestColleges survey, at least 80% of students believe their education has been disrupted due to pandemic-related changes.

Though the pandemic was a large contributor for low enrollment during the fall 2020 semester, enrollment across all institutions has continued to decrease this spring, concerning experts and putting numerous universities in a bind.

For many colleges, sinking enrollment means smaller revenue due to fewer tuition dollars coming in. In response, schools have had to find alternative ways to supplement the loss of income. Some have made cuts across staff, faculty, and programs that are no longer generating interest, while others have been more creative, choosing to offer new programs and majors in an effort to entice students.

Nevertheless, enrollment declines persist. Colleges and universities will have to make increasing enrollment a top priority while policy changes, such as continuing test-optional admissions and alleviating the burden of student loan debt, must be implemented on a grand scale before changes in enrollment can be seen.

Enrollment Dips Disproportionately Affect Students of Color

While enrollment is down across the board for all racial and ethnic groups, Black, Latino/a, and Native American students account for the majority of these declines.

Prior to the pandemic, Latino/a students had been the fastest-growing demographic of undergraduates. But as the Latino/a community faced disproportionate risks from COVID-19 and greater income losses, its university enrollment slipped, threatening to further widen the enrollment gap among ethnic groups.

Unlike with the Latino/a community, declines in enrollment among Black and Native American students began long before the pandemic and have continued to grow each year. This spring, undergraduate Native American enrollment fell 13%, while Black student enrollment fell 8.8%. Though smaller, decreases in Asian student enrollment continue to grow steadily year over year.

This spring, undergraduate Native American enrollment fell 13%, while Black student enrollment fell 8.8%.

Minority and low-income high school students in the class of 2020 were less likely to enroll in college immediately after graduation, according to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report.

These declines in enrollment among students of color are particularly concerning as they're disproportionate to population changes. Although white students also experienced enrollment declines, those drops closely mirror changes in the country's overall white population.

One of the biggest concerns is how these enrollment changes will impact the future workforce. With fewer students of color pursuing higher education, existing employment gaps among ethnic groups are likely to widen.

Where Is College Enrollment Headed?

According to a recent report by higher education data analytics firm Othot, the future of college enrollment doesn't look positive just yet.

The study predicts that over the next five years, national enrollment will slowly rise, only to peak in 2025 and then decrease 15% over the following four years. This prediction is based on the high school graduate populations each year.

In order for enrollment trends to shift positively, experts stress the importance of policy changes that address the financial hurdles associated with college admissions. President Joe Biden's American Families Plan could be a step in the right direction.

The new proposal would provide two free years of community college and subsidize two years of tuition for students with household incomes of less than $125,000 and who are enrolled at four-year HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions.


Feature Image: Nikola Spasic / EyeEm / Getty Images