U.S. College Enrollment Decline Statistics

College enrollment has been declining since 2010. Learn more about college enrollment trends and COVID-19's impact on enrollment.

July 13, 2022 · Updated on July 13, 2022

U.S. College Enrollment Decline Statistics
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Jasmin Merdan / Moment / Getty Images

Data Summary

College enrollment has been declining since 2010.[1] From spring 2011 to spring 2022, colleges lost about 3.3 million students, or 17% of enrollment.[2][3] The college enrollment decline has accelerated during the pandemic, resulting in a loss of nearly 1.3 million students, or 7% of enrollment, between spring 2020 and spring 2022.Footnote [3] Financial concerns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic caused many would-be students to change their plans.[4] Since the pandemic, the college enrollment decline has been most prominent among Black students.Footnote [3]

College enrollment recently slid for the fifth consecutive semester. It's actually trended downward for the past decade. For some colleges, enrollment declines hurt their revenue and, therefore, what offerings they can provide students.

Different factors impact college enrollment, like falling birth rates, rising college tuition, and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This report covers long-term enrollment patterns, the recent decline, and some of the causes behind this dip.

Explore all college enrollment statistics

Table of Contents

College Enrollment Over the Years

After increasing for decades, college enrollment peaked in 2010 at around 18.1 million students.Footnote [1] From there, it declined steadily. In fall 2019, about 16.6 million students were enrolled in college.

College enrollment decline statistics:

  • Between 1985-2010, college enrollment increased at an average rate of 2.2% a year.
  • From 2011-2019, it decreased at an average rate of 1% a year.
  • In 2019, it was 8.4% down from peak enrollment in 2010.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

College Enrollment Decline by School Type

The steepest enrollment decline has been among two-year public schools.Footnote [1]

  • Two-year public schools lost enrollment at an average rate of 3.2% a year from 2011-2019.
  • These schools have lost a greater percentage of students than any other institution type every year from 2011-2019.
  • Four-year public schools are the only school type that has not seen enrollment decline in the past ten years. However, the rate of increase has slowed. Between 2011-2019, enrollment grew an average of 1.8% per year compared to 2.8% between 2000-2010.

Source: NCES

Two-year private schools appear in a separate graph due to their lower enrollment numbers. Among these schools, for-profit institutions experienced a steep climb followed by an even steeper drop. Enrollment at non-profit institutions has generally trended downward since the 1990s.

Source: NCES

College Enrollment Rate

The percentage of all Americans between 18-24 who are enrolled in college hasn't changed much since 2010. It's hovered around 40%.

Source: NCES

What's Causing the College Enrollment Decline?

People in the largest college-going age group are going to college at about the same rate as they were ten years ago. So why is college enrollment declining? And what does the future of higher education hold?

To answer that, you'll have to look further back. Following an economic recession in the early 1990s, the U.S. birth rate fell.[5] This could explain a college enrollment decline about 18 years later.

The birth rate dropped again during the 2007-2009 recession. For this reason, experts predict another enrollment drop — or "cliff" — after 2025.[6]

Pandemic College Enrollment Decline: 2020-2022

The college enrollment decline has accelerated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public institutions — especially two-year colleges — experienced the steepest declines.

International enrollment and transfer enrollment also saw sharp declines during the pandemic.

Between spring 2020 and spring 2022:Footnote [3]

  • Postsecondary institutions have lost close to 1.3 million students — about 7% of total enrollment.
  • Year over year, this rate of decline is more than three times as fast as the average rate of decline seen in the previous decade.
  • Enrollment declined at public schools by around 1.1 million, or close to 9% of students.
  • Two-year public schools lost over 800,000, or almost 17%, of students since 2020.

Sources: Best Colleges Analysis Using Spring 2020 Enrollment Estimates and Spring 2022 Enrollment Estimates. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).

Disproportionate Impact on Black Student Enrollment

The pandemic may have aggravated an existing decline in Black men's college enrollment, as a racial breakdown of the data reveals greater college enrollment declines for Black students in the past two years than students of other racial backgrounds.Footnote [3] Additionally, male student enrollment dropped at a rate triple that of female enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2020.Footnote [1]

Even before the pandemic, Black students were more impacted by the racial wealth gap, a history of exclusion in higher education, and school suspensions in elementary and high school[7] that can impact academic and life trajectories.[8]

Source: NSCRC

COVID-19's Impact on College Plans

In an experimental study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the majority of adults who had household members enrolled in college for the fall 2021 term said that their school plans changed.[9]

  • 32% said their classes would occur in different formats.
  • 16% canceled all plans to attend.
  • 12% took fewer classes.
  • Other changes respondents reported included changing their degree (5%), switching schools (3%), or taking more classes (2%).

Those whose plans were canceled cited multiple reasons, including:Footnote [4]

  • Having or fear of getting COVID-19 (38%)
  • Uncertainty about upcoming program changes (28%)
  • A class format change at their school, for example, switching to online classes (20%)
  • Changes to financial aid (20%)

But the most popular was finances. Almost half (48%) of respondents whose plans were canceled reported an inability to pay for educational expenses because of the pandemic.

Additionally, income level was correlated to a need to change college plans during the pandemic.Footnote [9]

  • Among households making over $150,000 a year, 57% had no change in plans to attend college classes — 13 percentage points above the average.
  • In households making under $50,000, just 37% planned to carry on their education without making a change — 7 percentage points below average.
  • Almost a quarter of households making less than $25,000 a year canceled all their college plans — compared to less than 10% of households making $100,000 or more a year.

Source: NCES

Dive Deeper Into College Enrollment Statistics

Explore all U.S. college enrollment statistics

Frequently Asked Questions About the College Enrollment Decline

Are more students going to college?

Today, fewer people are going to college than in recent years. In 2020, 15.8 million students were enrolled in college. That's the lowest fall enrollment since 2007.Footnote [1]

However, in general, more people go to college today than in the early 2000s and previous decades. In 2020, more than twice as many people went to college as in 1975.

Why is college enrollment declining?

The rising cost of college might be one factor behind the college enrollment decline. More than 6 in 10 Americans in a recent BestColleges survey said that the financial burden of earning a degree made college inaccessible.

Since the pandemic, the college enrollment decline has accelerated. The pandemic's economic impact forced some to reconsider their plans to attend college, especially those with lower incomes.Footnote [9]

Is college becoming less popular?

In general, college isn't necessarily becoming less popular. When you look at the college enrollment rate among 18-24-year olds, roughly the same percentage enrolled in college in 2020 as they did 10 years prior.[10] Instead, today's enrollment decline could be a result of slower birth rates following economic recessions.

College isn't becoming more popular, however. After a gradual increase over the decades, the college enrollment rate has basically stopped growing. Time will tell how the college enrollment rate will change in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.



References

  1. Table 303.70. Total undergraduate fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control and level of institution: Selected years, 1970 through 2030. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). November 2021.
  2. Current Term Enrollment Estimates Spring 2013. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). May 2013.
  3. Spring 2022 Enrollment Estimates. NSCRC. May 2022.
  4. Table 302.85. Among adults 18 years old and over who reported all fall attendance plans for at least one adult in their household had been canceled, percentage reporting on reasons for changes in plans, by selected respondent characteristics: August 18 to 30, 2021. NCES. October 2021.
  5. Chart: Birth Rate, crude per 1,000 people - United States. The World Bank. 2020.
  6. See Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education for more information and forecasts on the college enrollment cliff.
  7. Ryberg, et al. Despite Reductions Since 2011-12, Black Students and Students With Disabilities More Likely to Experience Suspension. Child Trends. August 2021.
  8. Del Toro, Juan and Wang, Ming-Te. The Role of Suspensions for Minor Infractions and School Climate in Predicting Academic Performance Among Adolescents. American Psychologist. March 2021.
  9. Table 302.80. Percentage of adults 18 years old and over who reported changes to household members' fall postsecondary plans, by selected respondent characteristics: August 18 to 30, 2021. NCES. October 2021. [Note: Interpret data with caution. Response rates do not meet NCES standards.]
  10. Table 302.60. Percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college, by level of institution and sex and race/ethnicity of student: 1970 through 2020. NCES. August 2021.