U.S. College Enrollment Decline: Facts and Figures

College enrollment has been declining since 2010. Learn more about college enrollment trends and COVID-19's impact on enrollment.
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Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
Updated on February 15, 2024
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Data Summary

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    College enrollment has been declining since 2010.[1]
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    In the past decade, total college enrollment has dropped by nearly 1.5 million students, or by about 7.4%.[2], [3]
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    The undergraduate college enrollment decline has accelerated since the pandemic began, resulting in a loss of over 900,000 students, or almost 6% of total enrollment, between fall 2019 and fall 2023.Note Reference [3]
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    Graduate student enrollment, however, has increased by about 140,000 students, or by about 5%.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 or more. 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 Decline: 1980s-2020s

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 2021, about 15.4 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 2011-2021, it decreased at an average rate of 1.6% a year.
  • In 2021, it was 14.6% 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 38% of their enrollment between 2010 and 2021.
  • Two-year private for-profit colleges lost about 59% of their enrollment in the same period.
  • Four-year private for-profit colleges lost about 54% of their enrollment.
  • Enrollment grew at four-year public colleges (by 15.1%) and four-year nonprofit colleges (by 2.7%).

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

Pandemic College Enrollment Decline: 2019-2023

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 (NSCRC) found that between fall 2019 and fall 2023:Note Reference [3]

  • Postsecondary institutions lost about 750,000 unduplicated students, or about 4% of total enrollment.
  • Undergraduate student enrollment fell by over 900,000 students, or almost 6% of total enrollment.
  • However, graduate student enrollment grew by about 140,000 students, or by nearly 5%.

By fall 2023, undergraduate enrollment increased for the first time since before the pandemic. However, it has not fully returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Fall College Enrollment, 2019-2023
Year Undergraduate Enrollment Graduate Enrollment
2019 16,152,005 2,961,798
2020 15,617,969 3,048,557
2021 15,093,365 3,114,071
2022 15,072,249 3,085,883
2023 15,248,077 3,102,873
Source: NSCRCNote 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.[5]

  • 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 getting COVID-19 and changes in financial aid. But the most popular reason was finances. Almost half (48%) of respondents whose plans were canceled reported an inability to pay for educational expenses because of the pandemic.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 [5]

  • 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.

Additionally, a 2023 ACT report found that students from low-income families were more than twice as likely as other students to question their decision to attend college.

College Enrollment Rate Over Time

In 2021, the percentage of all U.S. residents between 18-24 enrolled in college was 38.1%, the lowest it's been since 2006.[6] In 2022, the college enrollment rate was 39%, which is still low compared to the previous decade.

Additionally, the percentage of recent high school graduates enrolled in college was around the lowest it's been in years. In 2022, 62% of high school grads enrolled in college versus 70% in 2009.[7]

What's Causing the College Enrollment Decline?

Before the pandemic, people in the largest college-going age group were going to college at about the same rate as they were 10 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.[8] 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.

Dive Deeper Into College Enrollment Statistics

Frequently Asked Questions About the College Enrollment Decline

Are more students going to college?

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Today, fewer people are going to college than in recent years. In 2021, 15.4 million students were enrolled in an undergraduate degree program. That's the lowest fall enrollment since 2006.Note Reference [1]

However, in general, more people go to college today than in the early 2000s and previous decades. In 2021, more than twice as many people went to college as in 1970.Note Reference [1]

Why is college enrollment declining?

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One factor behind falling college enrollment is a shrinking U.S. birth rate. Tuition inflation might be another factor behind the college enrollment decline. In a 2022 BestColleges survey, more than 6 in 10 Americans 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 lower-income students.

Is college becoming less popular?

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Outside of the pandemic, it's hard to say that college is 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 [6] 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.


  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 2031. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). December 2022. (back to footnote 1 in content ⤶)
  2. Current Term Enrollment Estimates Fall 2013 (PDF). National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). January 2014. (back to footnote 2 in content ⤶)
  3. Berg, B., Causey, J., Cohen, J., Randolph, B., & Shapiro, D. Current Term Enrollment Estimates: Fall 2023, Herndon, VA: NSCRC. January 2024. (back to footnote 3 in content ⤶)
  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. (back to footnote 4 in content ⤶)
  5. 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.] (back to footnote 5 in content ⤶)
  6. 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 2022. NCES. August 2023. (back to footnote 6 in content ⤶)
  7. Table 302.10. Recent high school completers and their enrollment in college, by sex and level of institution: 1960 through 2022. NCES. July 2023. (back to footnote 7 in content ⤶)
  8. Chart: Birth Rate, crude per 1,000 people - United States. The World Bank. 2021. (back to footnote 8 in content ⤶)