Report: College Enrollment Continues Pandemic Plummet

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data show enrollment down 6.5% since fall 2019, the sharpest two-year drop in the last 50 years.
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Matthew Arrojas
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Updated on February 24, 2023
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  • Fall semester undergraduate enrollment at U.S. colleges has declined for the second consecutive year.
  • Recent enrollment declines are part of a larger trend being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Private, nonprofit, four-year universities have fared the best among higher education institutions.

Undergraduate enrollment for the fall semester slipped for the second straight year, according to new data released Tuesday.

As of Sept. 23, 2021, fall semester enrollment at undergraduate colleges and universities had dipped 3.2% from last fall, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). This trend continues from fall 2020, when undergraduate enrollment fell by 3.6% from fall 2019. Overall, the number of enrolled undergraduate students has decreased by 6.5% since fall 2019.

This preliminary data indicates the sharpest two-year undergraduate enrollment drop in the last 50 years, NSCRC executive director Doug Shapiro said in a call with reporters.

NSCRC, a nonprofit research center, collected its data from a survey including 50.5% of U.S. higher education institutions. Surveyed schools encompass 8.4 million students.

These recent drops are part of a larger enrollment decline trend being exacerbated by COVID-19. Even before the the pandemic, enrollment at all levels of higher education institutions was falling. Between the 2013-14 and 2018-19 academic years, undergraduate enrollment decreased by 6.5%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Highly Selective Universities Buck The Trend

Enrollment trends vary depending on how selective a university is, according to the NSCRC report. NSCRC determined schools' selectivity based on the Barron's college selectivity index.

Highly selective four-year schools actually saw enrollment numbers increase this past semester. Such institutions reported a 2.1% rise in undergraduate enrollment for fall 2021. Among these colleges, those with private, nonprofit status saw an even higher enrollment increase — 4.3%. This enrollment bump for highly selective institutions contributed to a relatively small decline overall for private, nonprofit, four-year schools.

Very competitive schools reported a 1.3% decline, competitive schools saw a 2.6% drop, and enrollment in less selective colleges fell by 4.7%.

According to NSCRC data, public two- and four-year institutions reported respective enrollment drops of 5.6% and 2.3% from fall 2020 to fall 2021. For two-year public schools, this marks a slight improvement over last fall, where enrollment fell by 9% year over year. But this demonstrates a worse decline for four-year institutions, where enrollment only fell by 0.8% from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

Private, for-profit, four-year colleges saw the worst drop, reporting a 12.7% decline in enrollment in fall 2021. In fall 2020, they saw only a 0.3% drop.

Private, nonprofit, four-year institutions have weathered this trend better than the rest, but enrollment has still declined. Undergraduate enrollment at these schools fell by 0.7% between fall 2020 and fall 2021.

Data Reveals Demographic Differences in College Enrollment

Enrollment trends also differed based on undergraduate students' race and ethnicity.

Undergraduate enrollment for white, Black, and Native American undergraduates fell at rates ranging from 4.4% to 5.1%. These groups saw the sharpest declines from last year.

Latino and Asian undergraduate enrollment rates fell by 2.4% and 2.2%, respectively.

NSCRC enrollment research yielded few notable differences between male and female students over the past year. Enrollment for each group declined by about 3.5% in that time frame. Comparing enrollment drops over the last two years, however, tells a different story. Male enrollment has declined by 9.3% since fall 2019, and female enrollment is down 5.3%.