College Enrollment Declines … Again

College enrollment has dropped for the third straight year since the pandemic.

A report released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that undergraduate enrollment has declined 1.1 percent since last fall—about 7 percent lower than it was in fall 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“I certainly wouldn’t call this a recovery,” Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director, says. “We’re seeing smaller declines, but when you’re in a deep hole, the fact that you’re only digging a tiny bit further is not really good news.”


According to the report, freshmen enrollment is down this fall about 1.5 percent.

“We don’t see a huge upsurge of first-year students, of freshmen, especially at the four-year institutions,” Shapiro says. “There’s not a lot of evidence in these numbers that they’re coming back now.”

For-profit schools saw the biggest declines this fall, with undergraduate enrollment down 2.5 percent. At public four-year schools, that number is down 1.6 percent, while private nonprofit colleges are seeing a 0.9 percent decline. Community colleges saw the lowest drop in enrollment at 0.4 percent.


While experts can’t pinpoint the decline to a sole reason, one thing is clear—the pandemic didn’t help college enrollment.

“We are analyzing the data to determine where and why most of the decline occurred,” Mary Hester-Clifton, director of communications and institutional advancement, told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “There is no singular reason for the decrease, [but] it appears that the pandemic and economic conditions are affecting our enrollment.”

Some experts say concerns around student debt and a strong labor market for unskilled workers may be reasons for the decline in college enrollment.

“My theory would be, I think in the initial shock of the pandemic in fall 2020, the fresh-minted college graduate wanted to buy themselves a little time by enrolling in master’s degree programs,” says Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the clearinghouse. “As the labor market is turning in the other direction, maybe there is more interest in getting employment rather than seeking further education at the graduate level.”

Sources: The Washington Post, NPR, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

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