No surprises in final tally on spring enrollment


There are no surprises in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s semi-annual report on college enrollment. Spring enrollment was down. For community colleges, way down.

By now, double-digit enrollment declines in the community college sector have been well documented and reported. If anything, the new data cement that lawmakers, policymakers, higher education leaders and other stakeholders will have to brainstorm ideas to bring students back to the classroom.

“The final estimates for spring enrollment confirm the pandemic’s severe impact on students and colleges this year,” Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, said in a release. “How long that impact lasts will depend on how many of the missing students, particularly at community colleges, will be able to make their way back to school for the coming fall.”

Overall, U.S. undergraduate enrollment dropped -4.9% (727,000 fewer students) this spring compared to last spring. The decrease is seven times greater than the rate of decline in spring 2020, according to the report, which is different from the center’s periodic enrollment reports during the pandemic. Like in the fall, graduate programs saw an uptick of 4.6%, or 124,000 more students.

The damage this spring was greater among community colleges, which saw a -9.5% drop (476,000 fewer students) in enrollment, compared to -2.3% the previous year, the report says. The number of associate-degree-seeking students fell -10.9%, while certificate enrollment dipped -4.8%. The previous spring, the declines were -2.7% and -0.9%, respectively.

A look at age, intensity, gender and more

Enrollment of traditional college-age students (ages 18 to 24) saw the largest decline (-5%) among all age groups, due largely to steep loses at community colleges (-13.2%, or 365,000 fewer students), the report says. Community college enrollment of adults 25 and older fell at a slower rate, -6.1%.

The drop in traditional-age students has increased by 3.5 months the average age of a full-time community college student (23.65), which was declining for the last several years, the center adds. For part-time two-year college students, the average age continued to decline, down to 26.64.

Enrollment for students under 18 — who are mainly dually enrolled — dropped by -1.2% after seeing an 8.7% increase in spring 2020.

Other findings include:

  • Public two-year colleges in Connecticut (-17.4%), New Mexico (-16.9%), Pennsylvania (-16.7%), Louisiana (-16.6%) and Massachusetts (-14.8%) saw the largest enrollment drops this spring. Nebraska (2.5%) and Utah (0.2%) were the only states to have increases in the two-year college sector.
  • Enrollment among full-time community college students dropped more than among part-time students (-11.4% and -8.5%, respectively). In spring 2020, the declines were -1.8% for full-time students and -2.5% for part-time students.  
  • The rate of decline this spring for male community college students was more than double that of female students, -14.4% compared to -6%. For spring 2020, the rate was -3.1% and -1.7%, respectively.

The semi-annual report also looks at enrollment by students’ majors. The three majors with the most community college students all saw drops in enrollment:

  • Liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities (1.44 million total students), -13.8%
  • Health professional and related clinical sciences (760,810 total students), -2.2%
  • Business management, marketing and related support (485,360 total students), -7.9%

Psychology (0.8%) and legal professions (4.8%) were the only two growing fields for two-year students this spring.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.