Dive Brief:

  • Undergraduate enrollment is running further behind last year’s levels than earlier data indicated, according to an update from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 
  • The center pegged undergraduate enrollment down 4% year-over-year as of Sept. 24, compared to a 2.5% lag as of Sept. 10. The latest report has data from 54% of the roughly 3,600 schools the center covers, compared to 22% in the earlier sample. 
  • The report found a considerable drop-off in the number of first-time beginning students from a year ago, particularly at community colleges.

Dive Insight:

The decreases among first-time students is surprising and, in some cases, worrisome, Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, told reporters on a call Wednesday.

Across the sector, enrollment of these students was down 16% from a year ago. But that was steeper at community colleges, which recorded nearly 23% fewer first-time students. 

“Those students are probably less likely to be able to come back, say, six months or even a year from now” than students who would be attending some four-year schools, Shapiro said. “I think there’s a real risk that this entire generation of students will take many, many years to recover from the declines.”

The drop in first-year students at community colleges contributed to deepening losses across that sector, which also led institution types in enrollment declines in the earlier data. Public four-year colleges also reported bigger undergraduate losses than before, while the year-over-year decreases at private nonprofit four-years shrunk from the Sept. 10 report. Private for-profit colleges, meanwhile, was the only sector to gain students.

Just over half (54%) of colleges reported data as of Sept. 24, compared to 22% as of Sept. 10.

Hallie Busta/National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


Enrollment decreases at four-year colleges were roughly on-par with pre-pandemic enrollment trends, Shapiro noted.

A look at how the latest data on decreases in undergraduate enrollment compares to pre-pandemic trends across the sector.

Screenshot by Hallie Busta of NSCRC presentation on Oct. 14/Education Dive


Meanwhile, all undergraduate student demographics whose enrollment decreased from a year ago in the first report showed continued decreases in the update.

Historically Black colleges’ fall undergraduate enrollment largely tracked the national trends, with bigger decreases at private nonprofit schools and smaller ones at community colleges.

Colleges also reported sharper declines in international student enrollment, down 13.7% as of Sept. 24.

Just over half (54%) of colleges reported data as of Sept. 24, compared to 22% as of Sept. 10.

Hallie Busta/National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


Graduate enrollment, which was up nearly 4% in the earlier data, is now only ahead by 2.7%. Those gains are weighted toward for-profit, four-year colleges.

The decreases weren’t felt equally nationwide. Graduate and undergraduate enrollment was up in five states, including Utah, Vermont and West Virginia — where it was down year-over-year in 2019. 

Enrollment increases, particularly at community colleges, are typically tied to recessions. But earlier Clearinghouse data show significant gains took a few years to materialize amid the last recession.

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