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

A few months back, a preliminary report by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center confirmed that undergraduate enrollment dropped by a total of 4.2% over the last two years. To put it in perspective, there are currently more than one million fewer undergraduate students enrolled at a college or university than there were before 2020.

Total enrollment for undergraduate and graduate students decreased by 3.2% since 2020 as well. While these percentages aren’t large per say, they are significant – and symbolic of permanent changes to the institutional landscape. Many higher education leaders expected a swifter recovery.

“We’re seeing smaller declines, but when you’re in a deep hole, the fact that you’re only digging a tiny bit deeper isn’t exactly good news. Our biggest concern is that we aren’t seeing a huge upsurge back in freshman enrollment at four-year institutions [and] there’s not a lot of evidence of them coming back . . . The fact that we’re not regaining a great deal of ground this fall is a surprise to many,” said Doug Shapiro, NSC Research Center Executive Director.

So far, NSC researchers have collected data on 10.3 million students. Because these are preliminary numbers, more data will be revealed in 2023.

Undergraduate enrollment highlights from fall 2020 to fall 2022:

  • Public two-year institution enrollment decreased by 5.4%
  • Public four-year institution enrollment decreased by 4.3%
  • Private, for-profit, four-year institution enrollment decreased by 6.8%
  • Private, nonprofit, four-year institution enrollment decreased by 1.1%


Graduate enrollment highlights from fall 2020 to fall 2022:

  • Public four-year institution enrollment increased by 4%
  • Private, nonprofit, four-year institution enrollment increased by 0.2%
  • Private, for-profit, four-year institution enrollment decreased by 12.7%


Enrollment Decline Not as Steep for Community Colleges, Certificate Programs

Two-year schools seem to be in better shape than other institutions. While the total decline from 2020 to 2022 is listed at 5.4%, the most recent drop between 2021 and 2022 is only 0.4%. This could be partially due to accessibility, as some students have remained limited by finances and/or location since spring 2020. For example, many young adults relocated or altered their standard of living in 2020. Mental health is also a consideration. Community college is often the most accessible option.

This also brings up another interesting finding from the NSC report: undergraduate certificate program enrollment increased by 3.1% over the last two years. These programs prepare students for jobs such as bookkeeping, fire science, dental assistance, supply chain management, and more. Because of the uncertainty of the last two years, it’s easy to imagine why many students gravitate toward the realistic, straightforward quality of certificate programs.

Another bright spot: online institutions (where more than 90% of students take exclusively online courses) saw enrollment grow by 3.2% in the last year alone. Again, this is likely an issue of accessibility. Remote learning makes it easier to work a separate job, care for family members, tend to mental or physical health issues, and more.

To Increase Enrollment, Higher Education Institutions Must be Student-Ready

While the landscape has changed for traditional institutions, this isn’t how the story ends. Consider the enrollment increase at online schools and the very slight decrease at community colleges. What do these institutions have in common? Accessibility. They meet students where they are. For four-year colleges and universities to see higher enrollment numbers, they’ll need to do the same.

EAB (Education Advisory Board) Managing Director Kathy Dawley spoke with Inside Higher Ed about how schools must adapt to a new normal instead of expecting enrollment rates to naturally rebound: “It’s so clear that we have to do something different. Things have permanently changed,” she said.

The next chapter of higher education will likely be centered on student readiness. We’ve written about student-ready institutions before, and it’s an especially important topic when addressing enrollment declines. Student readiness refers to whether the institution is ready to serve the student, not whether the student is ready for the institution. It flips the traditional model of higher education on its head.

To do this, institutional leaders must decide what student readiness looks like at their particular college or university. While it’s a complex task with some inevitable bureaucratic roadblocks, they can refer to these examples of student-ready schools. Most recently, a survey from higher education tech company Jenzabar found that to address enrollment declines, some deans and presidents have opted for three main solutions: increased technology spending, more flexibility, and local business partnerships. More on those in the next post.



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

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