Undergraduate enrollment slips only 0.6%, showing signs of stabilizing
- Undergraduate enrollment declined 0.6% in the fall 2022 term, marking yet another year-over-year decrease — but one that is the smallest yet since the pandemic began, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
- Enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels. Since the health crisis broke out, higher education institutions have shed around 1.2 million undergraduates. Small increases in the number of graduate students over the period helped blunt some of the declines, though this trend appears to be fading.
- Public four-year colleges had the largest undergraduate enrollment decline, 1.4%, totaling about 88,000 students. That was followed by four-year private nonprofits, whose enrollment was essentially flat with a 0.1% decline, representing a loss of 2,500 students.
The preliminary figures offer hope that undergraduate enrollment losses are beginning to stabilize. Enrollment growth of first-year students was particularly strong, with 97,000 more enrolling in college in fall 2022 compared to the year before, representing a 4.3% increase.
That was true across institution types. Four-year for-profits saw the largest growth among this population, of 6.9%, followed by community colleges, which saw a 6.1% increase. Public four-year colleges had a 3.9% rise in first-year students, while four-year private nonprofits saw more modest growth of 1.8%.
For-profits saw the largest increase in first-year students
First-year undergraduate enrollment by institution type
“It’s very encouraging to start seeing signs of a recovery here, even though there’s still a long way to go before freshmen classes return to their 2019 levels,” said Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director, during a call with reporters Wednesday.
In fall 2019, colleges enrolled almost 2.5 million first-year students. In fall 2022, that number fell to about 2.3 million, meaning the first-year population was still around 6% below pre-pandemic levels.
Graduate enrollment has also started declining after two years of strong growth. In fall 2022, it fell 1.2%, representing about 39,000 students. That comes after it increased 3% in 2020 and 2.4% in 2021.
Graduate enrollment started to sink
Year-over-year enrollment changes by enrollment type
“Initially, in the pandemic, we saw declines among undergraduates but growth among graduate students,” Shapiro said. “We’re now seeing the end of that growth trend at the graduate level and some slight declines among graduate program enrollments.”
Four-year for-profits bore the brunt of those declines, with graduate enrollment falling 3.1% year over year at those institutions. Four-year private nonprofits also saw a substantial decrease of 1.6%. Graduate enrollment at four-year public colleges was mostly flat, falling by 0.3%.
Enrollment trends played out differently across the U.S.
The Midwest had the steepest undergraduate declines, with year-over-year enrollment losses reaching 1.2%. The Northeast had a similar decline of 1.1%. The South and West saw small increases, of 0.2% and 0.5%, respectively.
Enrollment trends varied by region
Year-over-year enrollment by type and region
But these same trends didn’t hold true for graduate programs. The Northeast, which had a notable undergraduate decline, saw the largest growth in graduate student enrollment, of 1.3%. Meanwhile, the Midwest and the West saw the largest declines, with each region clocking a 0.8% decline.
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