College Enrollment Slips for Fifth Straight Semester

Pandemic-induced declines in undergraduate enrollment continued into Spring 2022, with colleges and universities seeing a one-year decline of 662,000 students.
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Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • The enrollment declines are detailed in a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
  • Colleges and universities enroll 1.4 million fewer students now than before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Public institutions saw the sharpest declines in enrollment, according to the report.

Enrollment in colleges and universities fell across the U.S. this spring as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to reverberate throughout higher education.

Undergraduate enrollment dropped by 662,000 students (4.7%) compared to Spring 2021, while overall enrollment dropped by 685,000 students (4.1%), according to the spring 2022 enrollment report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The decline constitutes the largest year-to-year dropoff in overall spring enrollment since the enrollment tumble began in 2012.

It’s a trend that worries some researchers who see few positive signs in the data.

“College enrollment declines appear to be worsening,” Doug Shapiro, executive director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a statement. “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.”

“The decline constitutes the largest year-to-year dropoff in overall spring enrollment since the enrollment tumble Began in 2012.”

Quotation mark

The bright spot Shapiro highlighted was the increase in first-time, first-year students. That population of students rose 4.2% from spring 2021, and it follows a 3.5% decline from the previous spring semester.

Only a small portion of first-time students enroll during the spring semester, the report said. For example, 340,000 first-year students enrolled in spring 2022 compared to 2.1 million in fall 2021.

Trends Vary by Institution Type

Overall declines in enrollment weren’t standard across institution types. Here’s the overall breakdown for enrollment changes from the previous spring semester:

  • Public four-year: -3.4%
  • Private nonprofit four-year: -1.7%
  • Private for-profit four-year: -0.2%
  • Public two-year: -7.8%

The for-profit industry seems to have avoided the worst of the declines. According to the Clearinghouse data, the sector was buoyed by enrollment gains from students seeking associate degrees (2.4% increase) and graduate or professional degrees (5.4%).

State-to-State Differences

Enrollment trends weren’t standard across states, either.

Indiana was the only state to report double-digit growth in enrollments (10.7%) compared to spring 2021. Only nine states reported growth of any kind from the year-ago period.

Michigan reported the sharpest decline in the country (-15.5%). The report, however, stated that Michigan was among a handful of states with inconsistent data submission across years, which made enrollment estimates less accurate. Michigan was the only state that reported a double-digit decline.

Signs of Hope

Fall enrollments have also been on the decline since the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact higher education in early 2020, per fall 2021 data.

Another potentially positive sign for the future is the number of students who have already submitted their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2022-23 school year. According to the Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker, 49% of the high school class of 2022 had completed a FAFSA through May 20, up 4.6% compared to the last academic year.

FAFSA completions don’t always translate to enrollments. However, the National College Attainment Network stated that seniors who complete the FAFSA are 84% more likely to enroll in a college or university after graduation.