U.S. College Enrollment Picks Up, But First-Year Numbers Drop

Colleges and universities in the United States saw their undergraduate enrollment increase this academic year for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic, only to see their first-year numbers start to drop.

Total undergraduate enrollment nationwide rose by 2.1% over 2022 levels, according to the first round of estimates for the autumn semester from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Centre.

Yet first-year enrollment appears to be down by 3.6%, reversing a 4.6% gain last year, leaving first-year numbers nationwide just 0.8% above autumn 2021 levels, according to the Clearinghouse.

“That’s quite a surprise,” says Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the research centre, a non-profit organisation that collects and analyses data on behalf of U.S. colleges and universities.

U.S. higher education has long known that it’s facing a so-called enrollment cliff as the numbers of high school graduates decline in many parts of the country, Dr. Shapiro told a briefing with reporters to outline the findings.

Yet the slide among first-year traditional-age students appears sharper than the overall population declines, and could reflect a number of factors, he says, including students increasingly questioning the value of four-year degrees.

The new Clearinghouse data did show gains in shorter-term credentials, with a 9.9% jump in enrollments in undergraduate certificate programs, compared to a 3.6% rise in associate degrees and a 0.9% improvement for bachelor’s degrees.

The first-year declines appear especially pronounced at more expensive institutions. By selectivity of four-year institutions, those rated “very competitive” saw their first-year enrollments fall 7.3% compared with last year, while the most selective group had a 5.9% decline. Least-selective campuses lost just 0.9%.

Black, Hispanic, and Asian students accounted for most of this year’s enrollment growth at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Enrolment of white students fell at the undergraduate and graduate levels, with a 9.4% drop among freshmen.

Historically black colleges and universities saw disproportionately large gains in undergraduate enrollment, up 6.1% from last year.

The Clearinghouse data is based on an initial sampling covering 55% of the degree-granting institutions that participate in its surveys, with about 9.6 million undergraduate and graduate students.

Despite the losses among first-years, all major sectors of U.S. higher education showed gains. That recovery was led by community colleges, which were hardest hit by the pandemic and preliminarily showed a 4.4% increase in enrollment over last year.

Graduate enrollment increased 0.7% over last year, with a 5.7% rise in graduate certificate programs.

Among the 46 states for which the Clearinghouse believes it has sufficient data at this point in the semester, six of them – California, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland and Wyoming – had overall enrollment growth of 4% or greater. Nearly a quarter of the states had enrollment losses, led by Vermont, with a 4.7% decline.

Among students of traditional undergraduate ages, enrollment is up across all income levels. The single-year gains, however, are most robust among students from the lowest-income neighborhoods, up 3.6%, compared with a 1.4% increase among students from highest-income communities.

Male enrollment increased 2.2% while female enrollment rose 1.2%.

Enrollment in healthcare programs rose 5.7% among those seeking undergraduate certificates and 4.4% among those pursuing associate degrees, after declines during the pandemic.


Twitter: @pbasken

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Times Higher Education: US enrolment picks up but first-year numbers drop


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.