Colleges enrolled 1M fewer undergrads in fall 2021 than before the pandemic

Dive Brief: 

  • Colleges enrolled around 1 million fewer undergraduate students in fall 2021 compared to fall 2019, according to data released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that captures the toll the pandemic has taken on the higher education sector.
  • That loss of students means undergraduate enrollment was 6.6% lower this fall than two years earlier, before the coronavirus arrived. Undergraduate enrollment slipped 3.1% in fall 2021 compared to the year before, representing a decline of 465,300 students. 
  • The number of students seeking associate degrees fell 6.2% year over year in the fall. Enrollment of those seeking bachelor’s degrees dropped 3%, while those in graduate programs once a bright spot for colleges declined 0.4%. 

Dive Insight: 

The new report contains the Clearinghouse’s much-anticipated final figures for fall enrollment in 2021. It follows preliminary reports this fall that estimated the term’s enrollment changes using a different methodology and data from fewer institutions. While the final report’s undergraduate declines remain in line with the Clearinghouse’s earlier estimates, the new figures show graduate enrollment slightly declined rather than increased. 

Undergraduate enrollment once again fell across all institution types. For-profit four-year colleges saw the steepest drops in fall 2021, declining by 11.1% or 65,500 students. Public four-year colleges lost the largest number of students, 251,400, a 3.8% decrease. Community colleges saw a 3.4% decline, representing 161,800 students. Private nonprofit four-year institutions had the smallest drops, decreasing 2.2%, or 58,700 students, this fall. 

Graduate enrollment fell slightly after last year’s increase

Descriptive subtitle

“Our final look at fall 2021 enrollment shows undergraduates continuing to sit out in droves as colleges navigate yet another year of COVID-19,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a statement. “Without a dramatic re-engagement in their education, the potential loss to these students’ earnings and futures is significant, which will greatly impact the nation as a whole in years to come.” 

Every institution type saw enrollment declines in fall 2021

Year-over-year enrollment changes by institution type

First-year enrollment showed signs of rebounding after a precipitous drop last year. The number of first-year students increased slightly, by 0.4%, in the fall, representing about 8,100 students, but is still 9.2% lower than it was two years ago. Private nonprofit four-year colleges and two-year public colleges led the first-year student increase this fall, though all other sectors continued to see declines in this population. 

Enrollment declines at community colleges slowed in fall 2021, but the sector has remained the hardest hit during the pandemic. 

A recent paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research pinpointed one reason community colleges have suffered. Pandemic-related disruptions to hands-on programs, such as those in the construction trades and mechanical repair technology, contributed to the declines at community colleges, found the paper, which compared enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020. 

Upheaval affecting these programs, many of which are male-dominated, also partially explains why enrollment of men suffered at these schools. 

Such declines tapered in fall 2021, however. While male community college enrollment fell 14.7% year over year in fall 2020, it only dropped 1.7% in fall 2021, according to the data released Thursday. Meanwhile, enrollment in construction trades programs at community colleges rose 17.5% year over year after declining sharply in fall 2020. It was 64,051 in fall 2021, slightly above the 61,180 recorded in fall 2019.

Conversely, undergraduate enrollment in construction trades programs at four-year schools fell 16.3% in the fall. Other majors, including science technologies and family and consumer sciences, also saw double-digit declines at four-year institutions.

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