Undergraduate enrollment is 2.1% higher this fall than last year, marking the first time student headcounts have increased since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, according to preliminary figures released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
All major sectors saw undergraduate enrollment growth. But a 4.4% enrollment uptick at community colleges accounted for over half of the increase — a major reversal after the sector saw some of the largest student losses during the pandemic’s early days.
Undergraduate enrollment started to rebound in fall 2023
Community colleges enjoyed gains across the board. The new data shows a 3.6% increase in students pursuing associate degrees, as well as an 8.8% rise in dual enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credit.
This fall also saw a 9.9% increase in students seeking undergraduate certificates, most of which are awarded by community colleges, Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director, said during a call with reporters on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the number of students enrolled in bachelor’s programs grew only 0.9% in fall 2023.
The rising popularity of undergraduate certificates demonstrates a continuing trend of students opting for shorter-term programs, according to Shapiro.
“Associates are doing better than bachelor’s,” he said. “Certificates are doing better than associates.”
Other sectors also saw promising growth. Historically Black colleges and universities performed well, in particular, with their undergraduate enrollment rising 6.1% this fall. Those gains were driven by a 9.2% uptick in first-year students.
Undergraduate enrollment also shot up at primarily online institutions, rising by 10.2%.
Meanwhile, overall graduate enrollment rose slightly this fall, by 0.7%. Specifically, graduate certificate programs continued to prove popular, with headcounts there jumping 5.7%.
A ‘mixed bag’
At the same time, the preliminary data revealed some troubling trends. For instance, first-year enrollment tanked in fall 2023, dropping 3.6% year over year and nearly reversing gains made in fall 2022.
Shapiro said those declines were concentrated at four-year colleges.
First-year enrollment fell 6.1% at four-year public institutions and 4% at private nonprofits. Moreover, the number of first-year students pursuing bachelor’s degrees dropped 6.1%.
“That's quite a surprise, especially when the number of overall students has increased,” Shapiro said.
It’s hard to know what’s driving this trend, Shapiro said, noting that this fall’s data marks a reversal from last year.
In fall 2022, undergraduate enrollment slipped 0.9% compared to the prior year, but enrollment of first-year students grew 4.6%.
Overall, Shapiro called the enrollment data a “mixed bag.”
For instance, undergraduate enrollment increased across nearly all racial and ethnic groups. The biggest gains came among Latinx students, whose enrollment rose 4.2%, followed by Asian students, whose enrollment increased 4%. However, undergraduate enrollment of White students declined 0.9%.
These disparities were even more pronounced among first-year enrollment.
Enrollment declined 9.4% among White first-year students. Most other racial and ethnic groups saw dips among first-year students hovering around 3%. Only first-year Asian students showed an enrollment uptick, of 2%.
The preliminary report is based on enrollment data provided as of Sept. 28 by 55% of the Title IV degree-granting colleges participating in the National Student Clearinghouse. It represents 9.6 million undergraduate and graduate students.