Higher Ed Enrollment Sees 5.1% Decline Since Onset of the Pandemic

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

Since the onset of the pandemic, institutions of higher education have recorded a 5.1% decline in enrollment, accounting for 938,000 students opting out of postsecondary programs.

Those numbers, recorded from fall 2019 through 2021, are a part of a newly published set of data from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

According to the center’s fall 2021 Current Term Enrollment Estimates report, overall student enrollment saw a decline of 2.7%, which coupled with a drop of 2.5% from the preceding fall has exacerbated this worrying trend. 

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s previous reports captured similar concerns. 

For the fall 2021 report, undergraduate enrollment alone fell by 3.1% — or 465,300 students over last year.

According to the report, every sector saw undergraduate enrollment drop. Public four-year institutions saw the largest numerical decline, accounting for a 3.8% drop, or 251,400 fewer students. The steepest percentage decline was recorded for private for-profit four-year colleges, which saw an 11.1% drop, or 65,500 fewer students.

Community colleges saw a smaller enrollment decline than the previous fall: 3.4%, or 161,800 fewer students. However, the number of associate degree-seeking students enrolled at four-year institutions fell much more steeply compared to the previous year. Public four-year institutions saw a  decline of 11.%, private nonprofit four-year institutions saw a decline of 6.2%, and private for-profit four-year institutions reported a decline of 11.9%.

A minor brightspot in the data set is that freshman enrollment stabilized following steep declines in fall 2020, up about 0.4% or 8,100 students. According to the report, this was primarily driven by increases in private nonprofit four-year institutions. 

Still, the freshmen class of 2021 has far from recovered from drops recorded in previous reports, with the current cohort being 9.2% smaller (or 213,400 fewer students) than pre-pandemic levels in fall 2019.


Publication Date: 1/18/2022

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