600,000 fewer students enrolled in college this spring, survey finds

Dive Brief: 

  • College enrollment fell 3.5% in the spring term compared to the prior year, representing about 600,000 fewer students and marking the steepest annual drop in a decade, according to final figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

  • A 4.9% drop in undergraduates, or roughly 727,000 students, fueled the decline Graduate enrollment, which rose 4.6%, or around 124,000 students, helped offset some of those losses. 

  • The report reveals the severity of the pandemic’s impact on enrollment. Recovery depends in part on whether schools will be able to convince these missing students to enroll for the upcoming academic year. 

Dive Insight: 

Enrollment losses in the spring are seven times larger than the 0.5% drop seen the year before. “That’s a lot of educational trajectories interrupted, if not completely disrupted,” said Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director. 

The downswing continues a trend seen in the fall term, when almost 500,000 fewer students were enrolled in college compared to 2019 figures. 

Undergraduate declines this spring were concentrated at community colleges, where enrollment fell nearly 10%. Traditional-age students, which the report defines as those ages 18 to 24, dropped 13.2% within that sector, compared to a 6.1% drop in older students. 

Enrollment of men at community colleges dropped by 14.4% in the spring, more than double the loss of women. The report does not track other gender categories.  

Community college enrollment trends also varied by state. Two-year schools in four states — Connecticut, Louisiana, New Mexico and Pennsylvania — saw declines greater than 15%. Only community colleges in Nebraska and Utah had gains. 

Growth among graduate students helped lessen overall enrollment declines. For-profit, four-year colleges saw the second-largest losses out of all the institution types, at 1.5%. Private nonprofit and public four-year colleges both had dips of less than 1%. 

“Universities that have graduate programs, there’s a certain amount of cushion there,” Shapiro said. “But for small colleges that don’t have graduate programs and certainly community colleges … there’s no silver lining.” 

Community college losses drove overall enrollment declines

Enrollment change across sectors from spring 2020 to spring 2021

Some states had a particularly bleak spring term. New Mexico reported the largest overall enrollment loss of all the states, at 11.4%. Delaware and Michigan had the next biggest declines. Enrollment woes weren’t universal, however. Enrollment increased in seven states: Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. 

Students also shied away from certain majors during the pandemic. At four-year schools, the construction trades, science technologies and English language and literature had some of the biggest declines, while students flocked to personal and culinary services. Meanwhile, community college students tended to pass on personal and culinary services, precision production, and visual and performing arts majors, but were more attracted to legal studies.

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