Dive Brief:

  • Undergraduate enrollment decreases deepened slightly as more schools shared their numbers with the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, according to data released Thursday
  • Colleges reported 4.4% fewer undergraduates than a year ago as of Oct. 22, compared to a 4% lag as of late September. Graduate enrollment was up 2.9% in October, compared to 2.7% in September.
  • The latest report accounts for 76% of institutions the Clearinghouse covers, or 13.6 million students. A final count will be available mid-December.

Dive Insight:

The fall enrollment picture is filling in as more colleges share data with the Clearinghouse. And while, overall, higher education enrollment is still down by about 3% from last fall, the latest release shows a few changes in how those losses are materializing. 

The steepest declines continue to be among community colleges and first-year students, though their pace has eased as more colleges report numbers.

At for-profit colleges, earlier data indicated enrollment was up, but the latest numbers show it dropping. This is in part because for-profit colleges tend to have more flexible start dates than other institutions and so some that already reported are revising their numbers, Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, said on a call with reporters Wednesday.

And graduate enrollment at four-year, private nonprofits grew slightly after appearing flat last month.

International students also continue to register declines, with a 15% decrease among undergraduates and a nearly 8% drop among graduate students. They were the only student group to experience declines in graduate enrollment. 

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center/Hallie Busta


Fall enrollment trends have been closely watched after reports early in the pandemic suggested colleges could see their student counts drop by as much as 20% year-over-year. While that hasn’t occurred for most institutions — and some have even seen gains  where losses are reported is insightful.

For instance, while community college enrollment fell 9.5% year-over-year, enrollment at primarily online institutions rose 6%. Further, while undergraduate enrollment is decreasing across all age groups, it is growing at online-focused schools, both for traditional-age and adult learners. 

This trend, particularly among adult learners, suggests schools that are already suited for online instruction “are in a better position to capture some of this disruption” than are community colleges, Shapiro said. Some observers expected community college enrollment to increase as a result of the pandemic-induced recession, though Shapiro is not ruling it out. Past Clearinghouse data shows it took a few years for significant gains from the last recession to appear.

The Clearinghouse defines primarily online schools as those with more than 90% of students exclusively in distance courses pre-pandemic. The latest report includes 26 such schools.

The fall 2020 data covers schools reporting as of Oct. 22, 2020.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center/Hallie Busta


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