Enrollment of undergraduates ticked up 1.2% in fall 2023 compared to the year before, notching the first headcount increase among these students in over a decade, according to final figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“Undergraduates have finally turned the corner it appears after years of decline,” Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director, said on a call Tuesday with reporters. “I’m sure that many colleges are hoping that they have finally seen the bottom and are now starting to recover.”
Meanwhile, graduate enrollment rose just slightly, 0.6%, from the prior year. That marks a reversal from fall 2022, when graduate enrollment slipped 0.9%.
Overall, college enrollment increased 1.1% in the fall, amounting to about 193,000 additional students.
However, Shapiro cautioned that colleges are “still in a deep hole.” There are about 1 million fewer undergraduates than five years ago, and overall enrollment has dropped around 4% since fall 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic impacted student headcounts.
Additionally, higher education experts have warned that colleges will soon face a so-called demographic cliff, when the number of high school graduates sharply falls because of declining birth rates during the Great Recession.
Overall enrollment ticked up 1.1%
The clearinghouse’s final fall 2023 report also presents changes to some earlier estimates. Although some top-line figures track with the center’s preliminary findings released in October — which were based on roughly half of the Title IV degree-granting institutions that report to clearinghouse — other major indicators changed as more colleges provided their data.
For instance, the final undergraduate enrollment increase is smaller than what the center originally estimated, just 1.2% versus 2.1%. The final figures also show that enrollment declined at HBCUs, while the preliminary figures estimated an increase. And the center’s final figures show enrollment of first-year students rose slightly in fall 2023, even though the preliminary figures estimated a decline.
“We saw more of a variance from that initial sample than we normally do,” Shapiro said.
The clearinghouse also released more detailed data Wednesday, providing a deeper look into how headcounts are changing at community colleges.
Below, we’re rounding up three major enrollment trends uncovered from the final fall figures.
Students flock to community colleges focused on vocational training
For the first time, the research center looked at enrollment trends at community colleges that primarily prepare students to transfer to four-year colleges versus those that focus mostly on vocational training.
“There’s quite a big difference,” Shapiro said.
Community colleges mostly focused on vocational training saw their enrollment increase 16% in fall 2023, rising to about 813,000 students. Meanwhile, enrollment at community colleges primarily focused on transferring students ticked up only 0.2%, increasing to about 2.1 million students.
Two-year colleges with a mixed focus had a slightly larger enrollment increase of 1.1%. They enrolled nearly 1.6 million students in fall 2023.
Enrollment slips at HBCUs
Final fall figures showed that total enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities slipped 3.7%, with decreases among both undergraduate and graduate students.
This marks a shift from the prior two years. HBCUs saw year-over-year enrollment rise 1.2% in fall 2022 and 2.4% in fall 2021, according to the clearinghouse.
This is also a major change from the clearinghouse’s preliminary figures, which estimated in October that overall enrollment had increased 5.1% at HBCUs in fall 2023 compared to the year before.
However, Shapiro advised that even the final figures be taken with a grain of salt.
“We had lower coverage of HBCU schools in this report,” Shapiro said. “Fewer of them provided their data in time to be reflected in the numbers for the fall. Those percentages again could change even though this is our final report.”
Older attendees drove enrollment increases among first-year students
The final figures show first-year enrollment rose 0.8% in fall 2023 compared to the year before — a reversal from the 3.6% estimated drop based on preliminary figures. However, there was no growth in traditional-age first-year students, which the clearinghouse defines as those who are 20 or younger.
Instead, older first-year students drove the increase. The number of first-year students 25 and older rose by 6.5%, while the number between 21 and 24 years old increased 6%.
The figures are a sign for institutions “about the types of programs and the types of support and services that are needed as the student population shifts to older demographic,” Shapiro said. “And I think institutions in many cases are part of this trend by reaching out more to older students.”