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Home » Fall 2021 Undergraduate Enrollment Declines 465,300 Students Compared to Fall 2020

Undergraduate Enrollment Declines Exceed 1 Million Since Fall 2019

HERNDON, VA – (Jan. 13, 2022) – Compared to fall 2020, total undergraduate enrollment declined by 3.1% or 465,300 students, for a total two-year decline during the COVID-19 pandemic of 6.6%, or 1,025,600  students since fall 2019, according to a new report released today by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Nationwide, more than 17 million students enrolled in colleges and universities in fall 2021. Meanwhile, total fall enrollment increased in only four states: Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

The number of students seeking associate degrees, which fell by 6.2% this year, accounts for 713,000 of the undergraduate decline since 2019, a 14.1% drop over two years. Bachelor’s degree seekers fell by 3% this year, and have now fallen by 3.9% since 2019, a two-year decline of 333,900. Graduate student enrollment declined 0.4% or 10,800 this year.

“Our final look at fall 2021 enrollment shows undergraduates continuing to sit out in droves as colleges navigate yet another year of COVID-19,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Without a dramatic re-engagement in their education, the potential loss to these students’ earnings and futures is significant, which will greatly impact the nation as a whole in years to come.”

Undergraduate enrollment declined across all institution sectors, with private for-profit four-year colleges suffering the steepest percentage drop (-11.1% or 65,500 students) and public four-year institutions losing the largest number of students (251,400 or -3.8%) compared to the previous year. Private nonprofit four-year enrollment decreased by 2.2% or 58,700 students this fall.

Enrollment declines at community colleges this fall totaled -3.4% or 161,800 students. However, the number of associate degree-seeking students enrolled at four-year institutions fell much more steeply (-11.0% at public four-year, -6.2% at private nonprofit four-year, and -11.9% at private for-profit four-year institutions). Public two-year colleges remain the hardest hit sector since the start of the pandemic (-13.2% or 706,100 students over 2019).

Two-year and four-year public institutions combined, which enroll 76% of all undergraduates, showed a 3.1% decline or nearly 398,600 student losses.

Freshman enrollment stabilized this fall following a precipitous decline last year. Enrollment is up about 0.4% or 8,100 students from 2020, but still 9.2% less or 213,400 fewer freshman students compared to pre-pandemic levels in fall 2019. Private nonprofit four-year colleges led this fall’s freshmen increase by 2.9% or 11,600 students, followed by public two-year colleges improving 0.4% or 3,000 students. Freshman enrollment continued to decline in other sectors this fall.

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. Traditional college-age students (18-24) declined by 2.4% or 254,100 students, with the sharpest declines in the public two-year college sector (5.3% or 135,400 students). Dual enrolled high school students (under 18) increased at public two-year institutions by 1.5% but fell at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions (6.9%, and 1.1%, respectively).

Enrollment in each of the five largest undergraduate majors (Business, Health, Liberal Arts, Biology, and Engineering) at four-year colleges fell steeply this year. Liberal Arts declined the most (7.6%), while Computer Sciences and Psychology, the sixth and seventh largest majors, grew by 1.3 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. Among the 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).

The Current Term Enrollment Estimates (CTEE) Report Series is published in the spring and the fall of each year by the Research Center. It provides national enrollment estimates by institutional sector, enrollment intensity, age group, gender, major field, and state. Starting in fall 2020, state-level enrollment data are also shown by institution sector.

As with the previous editions, the Fall 2021 CTEE provides estimated postsecondary enrollment numbers based on the Clearinghouse universe of institutions, after accounting for data coverage rates. This differs from the Stay Informed report series that is designed to quantify the immediate effects of COVID-19 by analyzing year-over-year percentage change in unadjusted, preliminary data for fixed panels of institutions that reported data in the same month each year from fall 2019 to fall 2021. The estimated enrollment numbers presented in the CTEE report may differ from the results of the Stay Informed reports due to the difference in methodology and institution coverage. The most recent SI report, released November 18, included 74% of institutions that had submitted data by October 21.

Next week, the Research Center will release an update to the COVID-19: Transfer, Mobility, and Progress report.

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 currently collects data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97 percent of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments in degree-granting institutions, as of 2019. Clearinghouse data track enrollments nationally and are not limited by institutional and state boundaries. To learn more, visit