- Undergraduate enrollment has continued to slide in the fall 2021 term, declining 3.2% from last year, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
- Four-year public colleges saw a 2.3% decline in undergraduate enrollment, while community colleges experienced a 5.6% decrease. Conversely, graduate enrollment grew 2.1% year over year.
- Taken together with the fall of 2020's declines, undergraduate enrollment has now dropped by 6.5% from two years earlier. Yet graduate student enrollment has continued to rise, increasing 5.3% over the last two years.
The report is yet another dismal result for the undergraduate sector, where enrollment is down across the board. Year-over-year enrollment declines were particularly sharp at for-profit four-year schools, community colleges and primarily online schools.
"Far from filling the hole of last year's enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper," Doug Shapiro, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's executive director, said in a statement. He noted that community colleges have been "the most adversely affected sector," shedding 14.1% of total enrollment since the fall of 2019.
"If this current rate of decline — this 6.5% — were to hold up, it would be the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years in the U.S.," Shapiro said on a call Monday with reporters.
Undergraduate enrollment saw declines across the board
The preliminary figures are based on about half of institutions reporting their enrollment data to the Clearinghouse as of Sept. 23. Those colleges represent 8.4 million students.
Some sectors that fared well in 2020 saw larger drops this fall.
That includes for-profit, four-year schools, where enrollment dropped 12.7%, compared to 0.3% last year. However, those figures could change as more institutions report their enrollment data to the Clearinghouse.
Primarily online institutions also saw massive drops, with undergraduate enrollment and graduate enrollment declining by 5.4% and 13.6%, respectively. That's compared to an 8.6% increase across those two enrollment levels last fall.
Graduate enrollment rose across all college types except for-profits
Undergraduate enrollment at private nonprofit four-year schools held mostly steady, falling by only 0.7%. Yet disparities pervaded the sector, with the most highly selective institutions seeing enrollment grow 4.3% while less-selective categories had declines between 1.8% and 2.5%.
First-year enrollment is also suffering, falling 3.1% nationwide this fall. Although this rate of decline is only about one-third of that seen last fall, of 9.5%, it bodes poorly for the sector. That's because first-year enrollment remains far below the level needed to make up for a smaller class size entering college in 2020.
Undergraduate enrollment declines were also uneven across racial and ethnic groups. Enrollment of White, Black and Native American students declined more than any other groups tracked, sliding between 4.4% and 5.1%. Latinx and Asian student enrollment, meanwhile, fell by 2.4% and 2.2%, respectively.