Campuses mostly back to normal, but university enrollment is still falling

The college experience at many institutions is more or less the same now as it was before the pandemic, but student numbers still have not recovered, according to new data released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

According to the report, the number of undergraduate and graduate students fell by 1.1% this fall semester compared to last year. Preliminary fall data is based on 10.3 million undergraduate and graduate students as reported by 63% of colleges and universities receiving federal funding.

While the decline in enrollment has slowed since the pandemic peaked in fall 2020, student enrollments have fallen 3.2% overall over the past two years — a trend that worries higher education experts.

“After two consecutive years of historically high losses, it’s particularly worrying that the numbers are still falling, especially among freshmen,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, in a press release. “While the decline has slowed and there are some bright spots, a return to pre-pandemic enrollment numbers is becoming a distant prospect.”

In previous economic downturns, colleges saw an increase in student enrollments as job shortages drove people back to college. This pattern of countercyclical enrollment may have come into play over the past year, with college graduate enrollment increasing 2.7% compared to 2020. This year, college graduate enrollment is down 1%, but is still above pre-pandemic levels.

The number of first-semester students fell by a total of 1.5% this year compared to 2021. In four-year institutions, private non-profit organizations decreased by 3.1%, public organizations by 2.4% and private for-profit organizations by 0.9%. Highly selective institutions saw the largest drop in enrollments, with student enrollment falling 5.6% this year after rising 10.7% last year.

The picture is a bit brighter for two-year institutions, historically black universities and colleges, and online colleges. Community colleges saw a 0.9% increase in student enrollment this year, contributing to overall growth of 1% over the past two years. Undergraduate enrollment at HBCU grew 2.5% this year, with freshman enrollment growing 6.6%.

Predominantly online institutions saw a 3.2% increase in undergraduate students this year, with students aged 18-24 increasingly choosing to study online, suggesting that younger students are becoming more receptive to the idea are learning from home and forgoing the traditional college experience, Shapiro said. It is unclear whether this change in attitude is due to exposure to online learning or to more young people juggling part-time work alongside their studies.

The subjects that students choose are also changing, Shapiro said. The number of undergraduate computer science majors at the associate and undergraduate levels rose 10% this year, while health-related majors saw a 5% decline.