Total Postsecondary Enrollment Remains Well Below Pre-Pandemic Levels
HERNDON, VA (May 24, 2023) — Community college enrollment grew slightly this spring (up 0.5% or 22,000 students from spring 2022), after large declines in the previous two years, due to a growing number of younger students, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
A growing number of younger students, primarily dual-enrolled high school students, and freshmen, contributed to the uptick in community college enrollment. Undergraduate enrollment at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions are still declining, but at slower rates (-0.5% and -0.2%, respectively).
After pandemic-driven declines began to level off last fall, overall undergraduate enrollment remained stable for the spring term (-0.2% or -25,000 students). In comparison, graduate-level enrollment is faring more poorly (-2.2% or -68,000 students from spring 2022), eroding pandemic-associated gains. Total postsecondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, down about 1.09 million students overall and about 1.16 million undergraduates alone, compared to spring 2020.
“Despite encouraging signs of recovery among younger students at community colleges, overall undergraduate enrollment is still well below pre-pandemic levels, especially among degree-seeking students,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “With the pandemic now behind us, a new set of factors appears to be preventing students from returning to campuses. And these new factors are having a stronger effect on students who are seeking bachelor’s degrees than on associate-seekers.”
Freshman enrollment grew 9.2 percent from spring 2022, building on a similar increase reported last year, though it’s important to note that percentage increases in spring freshmen are based on a far smaller scale than in fall. Community colleges accounted for the majority of spring freshmen (53.9%) and had the largest increases of any sector (+12.4%), leading to a spring 2023 community college freshman class 7.0 percent larger than the spring 2020 levels.
Undergraduate-level students are shifting the types of credentials they pursue, with enrollments in bachelor’s degree programs falling more steeply than associate degree programs (-1.4% or -114,000 students versus -0.4% or -15,000 students) and other sub-baccalaureate credentials showing enrollment growth (+4.8% or +104,000 students; see Table 2). Graduate-level enrollment drops are almost entirely due to losses in master’s programs (-57,000 students).
Other highlights include:
- Continuing the trend from fall 2022, younger students are driving community college enrollment growth, specifically an 8.0 percent increase in dual-enrolled high school students (+49,000 students under age 18) and a 1.1 percent increase in 18- to 24-year-old enrollment (+24,000; see Table 4).
- Over the longer term, the median age of a community college student has dropped by more than a year since 2019 (down 1.2 years from 20.7 to 19.5 for men and 1.3 years from 20.4 to 19.1 for women; see Table 6), with enrollment under age 18 growing by 13.6 percent and each of the two older age groups declining much more steeply (-22.5% for age 18-24; -25.7% for age over 24).
- Female enrollment declined by 1.2 percent (-118,000 students), while male enrollment grew slightly (+0.4% or +25,000 students; see Table 7). The latest gender results extend the trend of an improved enrollment outlook for men relative to women, first seen in the second pandemic year (fall 2021), particularly at community colleges where male enrollment increased by 2.7 percent this spring (+45,000 students).
- Nearly all states follow the national trend, with slowing declines, stabilization, or growth over last spring. Both multi-state institutions and primarily online institutions, which are not included in individual states, regained the enrollments they lost last year, returning to spring 2021 levels (see Table 8a).
- Computer science undergraduate programs at four-year institutions reached their highest growth rate in three years (+11.6% or +62,000 students) in spring 2023. At two-year institutions, computer science enrollments are now above pre-pandemic levels, reversing three years of flat or declining numbers (+9.7% or +20,000 students). Healthcare and education program enrollments continued to fall across two- and four-year institutions alike (see Tables 9 and 10).
The Current Term Enrollment Estimates report series is published every January and May by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. It provides national enrollment estimates by degree level, institutional sector, enrollment intensity, age group, gender, and major field, as well as state-level enrollment estimates. Starting in fall 2020, state-level enrollment data are also shown by institution sector. Enrollment estimates are adjusted for Clearinghouse data coverage rates by institutional sector, state, and year. This differs from the Stay Informed report series which is designed to quantify the effects of COVID-19 by analyzing year-over-year percent change in unadjusted, preliminary data for fixed panels of institutions that reported data in the same month each year across all comparison years. The estimated enrollment numbers presented in the CTEE report may, therefore, differ from the results of the Stay Informed reports due to the methodology and institution coverage.
About the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes. The Research Center analyzes the data from Title IV eligible degree-granting postsecondary institutions that represent 97 percent of the nation’s postsecondary enrollment as of fall 2021. Clearinghouse data track enrollments nationally and are not limited by institutional and state boundaries. To learn more, visit nscresearchcenter.org.