College Enrollment Data Shows Worsening Outlook

Related Topics in the Ref Desk: Enrollment Status;

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

Following President Joe Biden’s call for the federal government to make more investments in higher education and a rosy report on the U.S. economic recovery, new data is painting a bleak picture for undergraduate enrollment, now at its lowest point since the onset of the pandemic.

Three months into the spring semester, undergraduate enrollment is in its steepest decline, with data collected through March 25 showing a drop of 5.9% compared to this time last year, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

For the first time in the pandemic, community college enrollment fell by double digits — 11.3% compared to a 9.5% drop last fall.

The clearinghouse dashboards are updated regularly using the latest enrollment data available and aim to highlight unique enrollment patterns attributed to the pandemic.

Students aged 18-20, comprising over 40% of all undergraduates, saw the largest enrollment decline of any age group this spring, accounting for an overall drop of 7.2%, with the steepest drop occurring at community colleges (14.6%).

According to the report, there is still no sign of any recession-related increase in adult enrollment at community colleges.

In terms of demographics, the largest enrollment swing occurred for Latinx students at both community colleges (an increase of 1.7% last spring vs. a decrease of 13.7% this spring) and public four-year colleges (an increase of 2.1% vs. a decrease of 1.9%). Prior to the pandemic, community colleges only saw growth in Latinx enrollment.

Native American students continued to represent the greatest decline of any racial and ethnic group among undergraduates, with enrollment down 13% this spring. Declines were found to be smallest among Asian students (4.8%), while enrollment among white, Black, and Latinx students fell by roughly equal levels (8.5%, 8.8% and 7.3% respectively).

The data not only reflect ongoing challenges caused by the pandemic, but also serve as a warning for the impact of a looming demographic crisis for the higher education sector.

On the state level, only three states — Nebraska, Utah,  and West Virginia — made small gains of 1% or less in undergraduate enrollment, while 25 states saw declines in undergraduate enrollment more than the national average of 5.9%. Double-digit declines in enrollment were seen in Alaska, Delaware, New Mexico, Oregon, and South Dakota.

Graduate enrollment, on the other hand, continues to grow this spring, clocking in at a 4.4% increase from this time last year.


Publication Date: 4/30/2021

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