Home Future Higher education enrollment declined in fall 2021: the latest data

Higher education enrollment declined in fall 2021: the latest data


How did college and university enrollment do in fall 2021?

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoThe National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has been tracking this closely. They do essential work. They have already released one estimate for fall 2021, which I wrote about here. Today they published their final report, which I’ll summarize and discuss now.

tl;dr version – total higher ed enrollment declined 2.7% in fall 2021, continuing a pandemic drop as well as a decade-long decline trend.

Let’s break it down.

One caveat: to repeat, these are total numbers.  Whenever I write about total enrollment someone will respond, “Well, my campus grew.”  Or: “My state did fine.”  Of course. America is a big country and its higher ed ecosystem is diverse. The reality is uneven. These numbers are top level. Your local results may vary.  The Clearinghouse announcement is clear on this: “total fall enrollment increased in only four states: Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.”

To begin with. there were persistent differences between undergraduate and grad students. The total number of undergrads went down 3.1% compared with fall 2020.  That’s a cut of 465,300 students.  For some perspective, 14,441,432 took classes in fall 2021.  In fall 2020 14,906,750 did so.  In fall 2019, that number stood at 15,467,001.  In contrast, graduate student numbers actually rose slightly, by 0.4%, which is consistent with a long term trend.  (For total numbers of that population, 2,860,932 students took grad classes in fall 2021. There were 2,871,734 in fall 2020 and 2,772,873 in fall 2019.)

Numbers differ by institutional type, but all were hit. “Every institution sector saw undergraduate enrollment drops,” as the report notes.

[T]he largest numerical drops [took place] at public four-year institutions (251,400 students or -3.8%) and the steepest percentage decline at private for-profit four-year colleges (-11.1% or 65,500 students). Community colleges saw smaller enrollment drops (-3.4% or 161,800 students) than in the previous fall, but the number of associate degree-seeking students enrolled at four-year institutions fell much more steeply compared to the previous year (-11.0% at public four-year, -6.2% at private nonprofit four-year, and -11.9% at private for-profit four-year institutions).

Public institutions were hit significantly harder than private ones:

Private nonprofit four-year undergraduate enrollment decreased by 2.2 percent or 58,700 students this fall. Public institutions (two-year and four-year combined), which enroll three out of every four undergraduates, showed a 3.1 percent decline or nearly 398,600 student losses…

Key point about community colleges and associates degrees:

Enrollment declines at community colleges were less severe this fall (-3.4% or 161,800 students) than in 2020, but the number of associate degree-seeking students enrolled at four-year institutions fell much more steeply compared to the previous year (-11.0% at public four-year, -6.2% at private nonprofit four-year, and -11.9% at private for-profit four-year institutions).

“less severe.”  Remember that community colleges have been hammered very hard, even though they get little media coverage.

Broken down demographically, older students dropped more steeply than traditional-age ones:

Adult students (age 24 and older) saw the sharpest relative enrollment decline this fall (-3.4% or 210,800 students), largely driven by steep declines at four-year colleges (see Table 5). Traditional college-age students (18-24) declined by 2.4 percent or 254,100 students, with the sharpest declines in the public two-year college sector (-5.3% or 135,400 students).

Gender differences persisted, although both genders* enrolled in fewer numbers.  7,059,178 men enrolled, a -2.2% decline since fall 2021. 10,243,187 women took classes, a steeper drop of -3.0%.  (Note that powerful 21st century trend of women outnumbering men within the student body.  That’s 59.2% identifying as female, with only 40.8% as male.)

The Clearinghouse also breaks down numbers by course of study, either individual majors or groups of them. Interestingly,

[e]nrollment in each of the five largest undergraduate majors at four-year colleges fell steeply this year (Business, Health, Liberal Arts, Biology, and Engineering). Liberal Arts declined the most (-7.6%)… Among largest two-year college majors, Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services declined the most (-7.4%), while Computer Sciences and Engineering increased (+2.9% and +1.5%, respectively…)

Did any fields enjoy enrollment growth?  Two did: “Computer Sciences and Psychology (the 6th and 7th largest majors) grew by 1.3 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively…”

What does this mean for higher education’s future?

Let’s begin by situating the data in documented trends. Taken together, these enrollment details are all part of the pandemic’s impact on higher ed.  The Clearinghouse report sums the data since COVID appeared as “a total two-year decline during the COVID-19 pandemic of 6.6%, or 1,025,600 [fewer] students since fall 2019.”

The pandemic decline is, in turn, part of a longer trend. Total enrollment has declined every year since 2012, as I’ve been documenting.  Here’s the Clearinghouse’s visualization of that trend from 2017, broken down by sectors:

enrollment 2017-2021_Clearinghouse

In short, COVID continues to serve as an accelerant for the long-running enrollment decline.  We must consider the likelihood that this trend will continue, depressing higher education student numbers for at least the next several years.

Could this enrollment decline trend pause or reverse course?  I fear that this possibility is unlikely.  First, the forces driving the 2013-2019 enrollment decline are still in play.  Anxiety over student debt, the demographic transition producing fewer young people, declining immigration, rising political and cultural hostility to the academy, men avoiding education, the collapse of many for-profit institutions, the appeal of jobs which don’t require post-secondary credentials: while we can debate which of these factors has different levels of impact, they all remain firmly in place, if not growing ever stronger.

Second, we now know that the pandemic did not increase student numbers.  The terrible financial crunch of 2020 did not drive people to classes, as has often been the historical case. Classes returning to in-person experience did not elicit a rebound after online education went mainstream.  For a variety of reasons the pandemic depressed enrollment even further than it was already suffering.  When the pandemic ends (say, by COVID becoming endemic, flu-like) we probably will not enjoy a tidal wave of new faces.

If this sour forecast holds, then academia confronts several problems.  First, the overwhelming majority of campuses depend on student tuition for financial survival. Fewer students force institutions to scramble: to market themselves to rich families, to increase tuition and discounting, to close and open programs, and even to consider mergers or shutting down entirely.  Given the comparative robustness of grad schools, we should expect more campuses to offer more MA and PhD degrees, programs, and entire schools.  We should also anticipate more aggressive recruiting and marketing, especially to regions where the demographic transition hasn’t transformed their populations.  Online learning may be key here.

Second, the declines in certain fields will cause immediate problems.  As of this writing the Omicron-driven pandemic is raging across the United States, hitting the highest level of infections ever, with hospitalizations rising far enough to cause widespread crises within an already frayed health care system. The nearly 5% decline in Health Professions and Related Programs means a drop in the number of skilled graduates in those fields, when we need more of them so badly.  Similarly, the even steeper decline in Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services majors poses a threat to a nation grappling with political unrest, controversy over policing, and a worsening climate crisis.

Third, a continued enrollment decline means the generally held American goal of maximizing access to higher education is failing, and failing badly.  That failure will have impacts ranging from declines in public knowledge and literacies to adverse economic and health outcomes.  It represents a historic reversal after massive growth from the 1980s through 2012. It means academia is producing fewer graduates for a society more dependent on information and knowledge skills than ever before.  For a generation we’ve accepted a model where undergraduate education is a way to advance oneself economically.  Have we decided that model doesn’t work too well, or do we think it’s just not for everyone?

Finally, if this trend continues, it poses a very awkward question.  Are Americans gradually coming to a new consensus, that we don’t think so many people need this much college?  If so, what are the implications for the 4,000 institutions which provide that education, and the many people who work in and adjacent to them?  What would that consensus say about the nation as a whole?

*The Clearinghouse reports track only male and female genders so far.  For more on that, see the report’s page 19.

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