3 higher ed enrollment and persistence trends to expect in 2024

As institutional leaders continue to manage everything from remote learning to educator retention, it’s helpful to stay up to date on the data, trends, and predictions that provide a high-level view of the industry. In the last blog, 2024 Higher Ed Predictions and Recommended Reading for Educators, we covered four critical issues for educators to keep in mind:  – the continued rise of artificial intelligence, workforce preparedness, (list next two).

Now, let’s shift the focus to enrollment, retention, and persistence. Here are three major trends educators can expect in 2024 and beyond:

  1. Online-only colleges and programs will see major spikes in enrollment

Even though community college enrollment has largely decreased over the past decade, federal data shows an influx of enrollment at two-year colleges that offer exclusively online instruction. In fact, a recent article in Inside Higher Ed states that, “Community colleges are increasingly finding that online enrollments make up a sizable chunk of their student bodies,” and remote learning “needs to be part of the repertoire of every comprehensive community college, because that’s where the demand is.” Edtech Analyst Glenda Morgan expertly points educators to these stats and areas of consideration:

  • At nearly 40 community and junior colleges across the US, more than 10,000 students at each institution have enrolled in exclusively online education
  • To be successful, online learning requires a different set of supports and infrastructure. This goes beyond technology to include support for student necessities such as advising, policies, and tutoring.
  • Overall, community college enrollment has increased by 4.3% from fall 2021 to fall 2023
  • This enrollment increase comes with a caveat: 40% of community college enrollment growth comes from dual enrollment in which high school students get dual credit for high school and college through special courses (Morgan notes that while dual enrollment is good for colleges and students as a concept, it doesn’t typically help revenues and can mask structural declines)


Related reading:

Do College Students Need to Go Back to Campus?

Five Best Practices for Online Learning in Higher Education

Online Learning is Here to Stay: Three Lessons for Higher Education Leaders


  1. Traditional undergrad enrollment will continue to increase, but slowly

This fall, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center published its biannual 2023 Stay Informed report on higher education enrollment. In a positive turn of events, researchers found that students from some underrepresented groups accounted for most of the undergraduate and graduate enrollment growth. Here are the highlights:

  • Undergraduate enrollment increased 2.1% — the first increase since 2020
  • Freshman enrollment declined by 3.6%, which reverses the fall 2022 gains of 4.6%. This puts fall 2023 freshman enrollment just 0.8% above fall 2021
  • Students continue to pursue shorter-term credentials, with enrollments in undergraduate certificate programs jumping 9.9%, compared to 3.6 % for associate degrees and 0.9% for bachelor’s degrees
  • Black, Latinx, and Asian students accounted for most of the undergraduate and graduate enrollment growth. Enrollment of White students continued to decline at both the graduate (-1.9%) and undergraduate levels (-0.9%), most acutely among freshmen (-9.4%)
  • Undergraduates grew at both ends of the age spectrum, with students 18-20 and 30 or older each adding about 3%
  • Students under 18 (dual-enrolled high school students) continued to outpace all undergrads with an 8.8% jump in enrollment
  • Among traditional-aged undergraduate students, enrollment is up across all neighborhood income levels in 2023, with students from the lowest income areas gaining 3.6% and those from the highest income areas gaining 1.4%


Related reading:

Navigating the Undergrad Enrollment Challenges of Today

Three Ways Colleges and Universities Can Increase Enrollment

Undergrad Enrollment is Still Down. What Can Colleges and Universities Do?


  1. Persistence will remain the best focal point for educators

It’s widely known among educators that the majority of students who stop attending college do so within their first two years. This means that higher enrollment rates don’t hold as much weight if students don’t persist beyond that. Beyond academic challenges, low persistence happens for many reasons – including low self-efficacy, lack of interest in career pathways, not enough mental health support, financial roadblocks, and more. Fortunately, persistence has increased since 2020, when rates initially dipped. A separate report from NSC on persistence and retention found that:

  • The overall persistence rate for students who started college in fall 2021 was 75.7 percent, which closely matches the pre-2020 average
  • Persistence rates improved at all institution types except for-profit four-year colleges and primarily associate degree-granting baccalaureate institutions (PABs)
  • Persistence and retention rates increased for all major racial/ethnic groups, except for Asian students (those rates remained stable)
  • Native American students made notable gains (+2.2% in persistence and +1.6% in retention) after sharp decreases last year


Related reading:

Why “Retention” and “Persistence” Aren’t Synonyms

To Increase Retention, Higher Education Must Focus on Persistence First

Four Thoughtful Concepts to Improve Persistence at Your College or University


3 higher ed enrollment and persistence trends to expect in 2024

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