Undergraduate enrollment falls 4.7% this spring

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Some 662,000 fewer undergraduates enrolled in college in spring 2022 compared to the year before, continuing a downward trend seen throughout the pandemic, according to figures released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Those losses represent a 4.7% decline in undergraduate students — a steeper downturn than what was seen in the fall. Dips occurred across all institution types tracked, including public universities, private institutions and community colleges. 

The report spells more bad news for the higher education sector, which has been hammered by enrollment declines for years. 

“I am surprised that it seems to be getting worse,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, said during a call with reporters Wednesday. “I thought that we would start to see some of these declines begin to shrink a little bit this term.”

Community colleges bore the brunt of the declines, with a 7.8% drop-off representing 351,000 fewer students compared to the year before. Those losses make up more than half of the total enrollment declines seen this term. 

Undergraduate enrollment declines continued in spring 2022

Year-over-year percentage change in undergraduate enrollment by institution type

Graduate enrollment — once a bright spot for colleges during the pandemic — also saw declines, falling 0.8%, or more than 22,000 students, in spring 2022 compared to the year before. The losses were seen across all sectors except for-profit schools, which saw graduate enrollment tick up 5.4% to 215,541 students. 

Graduate enrollment slid in almost all sectors in spring 2022

Year-over-year percentage change in graduate enrollment by institution type

Despite the heavy losses, the data shows at least one area of recovery. First-time, first-year enrollment increased year over year this spring by 4.2%, representing a gain of about 13,700 students. That’s a significant improvement over last spring’s 3.5% decline. 

The figures also show a rebound in this group at community colleges. First-time, first-year enrollment there increased 3.1%, or 6,000 students, over last spring. That’s compared to a 10.7%, 23,000-student year-over-year loss in spring 2021. 

However, Shapiro said any talk of a spring rebound comes with an important caveat. First-time students enrolling in the spring typically represent only about one-fifth of overall first-time, first-year students.

“These numbers are very small — they’re always very small,” Shapiro said. “It really remains to be seen whether this will translate into a larger freshmen recovery in the fall.” 

First-time enrollment grew across all sectors tracked in spring 2022

Year-over-year percentage change in first-time enrollment by institution type

The gains in first-year enrollment were not even across racial and ethnic groups. The largest increase came among Asian students, whose enrollment rose 15% year over year to 12,975. Meanwhile, enrollment of Black first-time students dipped 6.5% to 36,655 — the only group in that cohort showing a decrease. 

Gains in first-time enrollment were uneven across racial and ethnic groups

Year-over-year percentage change in first-year enrollment by race and ethnicity

All age groups saw enrollment declines in spring 2022. Enrollment of adults over age 24 fell 5.8%, representing about 354,000 students. Community college losses accounted for about half of those losses. 

Traditional-age college students, who are ages 18 to 24, also declined, by 3.2%, or about 316,000 students. However, this rate of decline slowed from spring 2021, which saw a 5% year-over-year enrollment dip among this age group. 

Enrollment declined across all age groups in spring 2022

Year-over-year percentage change in enrollment by age group

The research center based its enrollment reports on data collected from more than 3,600 higher education institutions. As of 2019, this sample represents 97% of all postsecondary enrollment at degree-granting institutions.

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