For 2022 Fall Semester, Undergraduate Enrollment Drops Again

New data reveals that the long-awaited pre-pandemic bounceback in undergraduate enrollment is still not on the horizon.

Published October 27, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
For 2022 Fall Semester, Undergraduate Enrollment Drops Again
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Hill Street Studios / DigitalVision / Getty Images

  • Since the start of the pandemic, undergraduate enrollment has fallen 4.2% across all institutions.
  • First-year enrollment at community colleges is on the rise, but many other institutions saw decreases.
  • Undergraduate enrollment at HBCUs increased 2.5% since fall 2021 and 0.8% overall since the start of the pandemic.

Even as the pandemic's impacts begin to fade, undergraduate enrollment is still on the decline. From fall 2021 to fall 2022, enrollment shrank by 1.1%, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).

Though the rate of decline is slower than in previous years, the pre-pandemic bounceback many in higher education were hoping for has not yet arrived.

After two straight years of historically large losses, it is particularly troubling that numbers are still falling, especially among freshmen, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of NSCRC, in a press release. Although the decline has slowed and there are some bright spots, a path back to pre-pandemic enrollment levels is growing further out of reach.

Since fall 2020, undergraduate enrollment has fallen by 4.2%. Declines have been largest at private, for-profit four-year institutions during the period.

Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Enrollment in associate degree programs has experienced the steepest decline since the start of the pandemic, falling 8% since fall 2020. Conversely, one of the bright spots as mentioned by Shapiro is that enrollment in undergraduate certificate programs has risen.

Since just last year, enrollment in undergraduate certificate programs climbed 2.5%. Meanwhile, enrollment in associate and bachelor's degree programs decreased by 1.7% and 1.5%, respectively.

First-Year Student Enrollment Continues to Fall, but Not at Community Colleges

Between fall 2021 and fall 2022, first-year student enrollment decreased by 1.5%, with the largest drop occurring at private, nonprofit four-year institutions. Enrollment of women at these institutions, in particular, notably dropped by 5.4% during the period.

Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

After two years of concerns about falling first-year student enrollment at public two-year institutions, enrollment actually rose 0.9% between fall 2021 and fall 2022 and 1% since the overall start of the pandemic.

Community college enrollment also saw significant increases from fall 2021 to fall 2022 among students ages 21-24 at 6.3%.

The largest increases in enrollment occurred among students ages 21-24 at public four-year institutions, students 21 or older at private nonprofit institutions, and students ages 30 or older at private for-profit institutions.

Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

But while all these age groups saw major increases in enrollment, the group of students ages 18-20, who comprise 90% of first-year students, continued to see declines.

Between fall 2021 and fall 2022, enrollment among students ages 18-20 at private nonprofit institutions dropped by 4.2%.

HBCU Enrollment Increased During Pandemic

In fall 2022, undergraduate enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) increased 2.5% from the year prior. Overall, HBCUs saw a 0.8% rise in undergraduate enrollment since the start of the pandemic.

Since 2020, experts have noted spikes in HBCU applications that have accompanied these jumps in enrollment and searched for what might be the cause.

Some have noted that famous HBCU graduates like Vice President Kamala Harris have boosted many of the schools' public images. But others have noted that many Black students, in the face of mass racial tensions, felt more drawn to being part of the majority on their campus.

Unfortunately, Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) did not experience similar increases in undergraduate enrollment. Between fall 2021 and fall 2022, undergraduate enrollment at HSIs decreased by 1.2%. Since 2020, undergraduate enrollment at these schools decreased 6%.