U.S. College Enrollment Decline

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

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    College enrollment has been declining since 2010.[1]
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    From fall 2012 to fall 2022, college student enrollment dropped by about 1.9 million students, or by almost 10%.[2], [3]
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    The undergraduate college enrollment decline has accelerated during the pandemic, resulting in a loss of nearly 1.2 million students, or almost 8% of enrollment, between fall 2019 and fall 2022.Note Reference [3]
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    Graduate student enrollment, however, has increased by about 4% since fall 2019.Note Reference [3]
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    Financial concerns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic caused many would-be students to change their plans.[4]

College enrollment has fallen since the start of the pandemic, but it's actually been trending 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.

College Enrollment Dropping Over the Years

After increasing for decades, undergraduate college enrollment peaked in 2010 at around 18.1 million students, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).Note Reference [1] From there, it declined steadily. In fall 2020, about 15.9 million students were enrolled in college.

Undergraduate 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 2020, it was 12.3% down from peak enrollment in 2010.

College Enrollment Decline by School Type

When you look at enrollment by school type — two-year and four-year, public and private — you'll find that only certain types of schools were driving the overall college enrollment decline before the pandemic.Note Reference [1]

  • Two-year public colleges lost nearly 35% of their enrollment between 2010 and 2020.
  • Two-year private for-profit colleges lost almost 59% of their enrollment in the same period.
  • Four-year private for-profit colleges lost about 53% of their enrollment.
  • Enrollment grew at four-year public colleges (by 17.5%) and four-year non-profit colleges (by 3.4%).

Two-year private schools appear in a separate graph due to their lower enrollment numbers.

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%.

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.[6] 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.

Pandemic College Enrollment Decline: 2020-2022

The undergraduate 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.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that between fall 2019 and fall 2022:Note Reference [3]

  • Postsecondary institutions lost about 1.1 million students — or about 6% of total enrollment.
  • Undergraduate student enrollment fell by over 1.2 million students, or almost 8% of total enrollment.
  • Graduate student enrollment grew by about 124,000 students, or by about 4%.
  • The college enrollment decline slowed between 2021 and 2022.
College Enrollment, 2019-2022
Year Total Enrollment Undergraduate Enrollment Graduate Enrollment
2019 19,265,402 16,284,724 2,980,678
2020 18,757,555 15,686,317 3,071,237
2021 18,287,747 15,144,221 3,143,525
2022 18,155,619 15,050,669 3,104,950
Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC)Note Reference [3]

Enrollment declined the most at two-year public schools; it increased at four-year private for-profit schools.Note Reference [3]

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.[7]

  • 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:Note Reference [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.Note Reference [7]

  • 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.

Dive Deeper Into 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 an undergraduate degree program. That's the lowest fall enrollment since 2007.Note Reference [1]

The NSCRC estimates that even fewer undergraduates were enrolled in fall 2022, just 15.1 million students.Note Reference [3]

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 1970.Note Reference [1]

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.Note Reference [7]

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.Note Reference [5] 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.