Undergraduate Enrollment Grows for The First Time Post Pandemic, Despite Freshmen Declines

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Undergraduate Enrollment Grows for The First Time Post Pandemic, Despite Freshmen Declines

New Report Shows Community Colleges Lead in Enrollment Growth

HERNDON, VA – (OCTOBER 26, 2023) – This fall, undergraduate enrollment grew for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s latest report. Initial fall 2023 enrollment data shows undergraduate enrollment increased 2.1 percent compared to 2022 and is now 1.2 percent above 2021 enrollments.

The Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information report for fall 2023 found that graduate enrollment also slightly increased this fall (+0.7%), with continued enrollment growth in graduate certificate programs (+5.7% this year, +9.9% since 2021). This report reflects preliminary data covering 9.6 million undergraduate and graduate students, as reported by 55 percent of Title IV degree-granting institutions that are participating in the Clearinghouse, as of September 28, 2023.

All major sectors grew, but community colleges (+4.4%) accounted for 58.9 percent of the increase in undergraduates. This comes after promising initial gains in community college enrollment last spring. Community college enrollment gains were widespread with students 24 and younger increasing at all levels of pre-college neighborhood income.

Despite overall undergraduate enrollment growth, freshman enrollment declined by 3.6 percent, reversing fall 2022 gains (+4.6%), and now at just 0.8 percent above fall 2021 enrollment. Almost all the freshman declines occurred in bachelor’s programs at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions (-6.9% and -4.7%, respectively), reversing their gains from 2022. Freshmen at community colleges and primarily associate degree-granting baccalaureate (PAB) institutions, meanwhile, largely stabilized following their gains in 2022 (-0.2% and +0.3%, respectively). Notably, freshman losses at four-year institutions were smaller at the less-selective schools (-0.9%) compared to the competitive (-5.5%), very competitive (-7.3%), and highly selective (-5.9%) categories.

“This is good news for community colleges and for the growing numbers of continuing and returning students who had lost momentum from the start of the pandemic,” said Douglas Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “In a more troubling sign, however, the initial recovery among freshmen last year appears to have stalled as more 18-to-20-year-olds, especially at four-year institutions, are opting out.”

Among the 46 states for which sufficient data is available, less than a quarter had declines in overall enrollment, ranging from -0.3 percent in Hawaii, Nebraska, and New Hampshire to -4.7 percent in Vermont. California, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, and Wyoming all saw enrollment growth of at least 4 percent. A similarly small share of states saw undergraduate enrollment declines.

Other key findings of the report include:

  • Students continue to gravitate towards shorter-term credentials, with enrollments in undergraduate certificate programs jumping 9.9 percent, compared to 3.6 percent for associate degrees and just 0.9 percent for bachelor’s degrees.
  • Growth at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has outpaced the overall undergraduate enrollment growth (+6.1% vs +2.1%).
  • Black, Latinx, and Asian students accounted for most of the undergraduate and graduate enrollment growth this fall.
  • Enrollment of White students continued to decline at both the undergraduate (-0.9%) and graduate levels (-1.9%), and most acutely among freshmen (-9.4%).
  • Undergraduates grew at both ends of the age spectrum, with students 18-20 and 30 or older each adding about 3 percent this fall. Those under 18 (dual enrolled high school students), however, continued to outpace all undergrads with an 8.8 percent jump.
  • Among traditional-aged undergraduate students, enrollment is up across all neighborhood income levels, with students from the lowest income areas gaining 3.6 percent and those from the highest income areas gaining 1.4 percent this year.
  • Female enrollment increased this fall (+1.2%) but at a slower rate than their male counterparts (+2.2%), a continuation of the greater pandemic impact on women first seen in fall 2021.
  • Enrollment in healthcare programs is starting to rebound after pandemic declines, especially among those seeking undergraduate certificates and associate degrees (+5.7% and +4.4%, respectively).

For the full report, you can visit: Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information. Results are preliminary as of September 28, 2023, and subject to change as more data is reported for the fall of 2023. The complete Fall 2023 Current Term Estimates are scheduled to be released early next year.

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. To learn more, visit nscresearchcenter.org.


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