Overall undergraduate enrollment continued to decline by -1.1% this fall compared to 2021, but community colleges were unique in seeing an increase among freshmen, according to the latest research by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.
Undergraduate enrollment declines this fall are seen across all sectors, especially among four-year institutions, with a drop of -1.6% at public four-year institutions, the center says. Overall freshmen enrollment declined -1.5%, including drops at both public and private four-year institutions.
“For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the declines this fall are steeper at four-year schools than they are at community colleges,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center.
Community college enrollment is basically flat (-0.4%) this fall, but those figures do not include two-year colleges that also offer baccalaureates (which the center classifies as four-year colleges). Enrollment of traditional-age college students in community college (ages 18 to 20) is up 1.4%, with traditional-age freshmen comprising about one-third of the increase, according to the report.
Freshmen enrollment at community colleges — up 0.9% this fall — appears to have stabilized for the first time since the pandemic started, the center says. Dual enrollment — where high school students take college-level courses for credit — grew a whopping 11.5%. However, community college enrollment among older students (ages 25 to 29) saw a -9.2% decline.
Not returning so far
Shapiro called the continued declines, especially overall among freshmen, troubling. He said reports of increases among the number of students completing the application for federal student aid had given him hope that freshmen enrollments would go up. But the uptick may be a result of some high schools requiring seniors to complete the applications, which would not reflect students’ intention to enroll, he noted during a call with reporters about the new data.
He added that colleges also closely watched whether students who graduated high school over the past two years but didn’t immediately attend college in the following fall would return.
“There’s not a whole lot of evidence in these numbers they they’re coming back now,” Shapiro said.
Myriad factors may be at play, from potential students opting to work in the current hot labor market, to concerns about whether huge debt to attend college is worth it, he said.
Shapiro emphasized that even though the rate of decline has significantly slowed down this fall, the overall enrollment decrease since the beginning of the pandemic is massive, especially at community colleges. He compared it to still being in a big hole, but just digging at a slower pace.
The NSC Research Center’s preliminary fall data is based on 10.3 million undergraduate and graduate students, as reported by 63% higher education institutions that are participating in the Clearinghouse as of September 29.
Big drop among whites
The steepest decline among freshmen in all sectors was among whites, who fell by -7% this fall, the report shows. Enrollment among Black students dropped -2%, and Asian students saw a -3.2% decline, while Latinx students saw an increase of 1.4%.
At community colleges, white freshmen dropped -8.2% this fall, while all other races/ethnicities saw increases — 7.8% for Latinx students, 2.6% for Black students and 3.2% for Asian students. White freshmen enrollment at community colleges has dropped -13.7 from fall 2020 to this fall, the data show. Over the same period, enrollment for Black students dropped -4.4% and for Latinx students -1.9%. However, Asian students saw an increase of 5.9%.
Overall enrollment at community colleges also has seen a drop among white students. In fact, all the races/ethnicities tracked in the report show slight increases this fall, with enrollments for Latinx showing the largest bump at 2.9%. For white students, enrollment decreased -4.7% this fall. Since fall 2020, white enrollments have dropped -13.1%, followed by -10% among Asian students and -5.3% among Black students.
Other key figures
At community colleges, male enrollments increased 0.9% this fall following a -3.8% drop last fall. Meanwhile, female enrollment continues to drop: -2% this fall, on top of the -6.4% last fall, for a two-year drop of -8.3%.
The center also examined data from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs). HBCUs saw a 2.5% increase this fall, compared to its -1.7% decline in fall 2021. Meanwhile, HSIs continued to see a decrease, though at a slower pace: enrollments dropped -1.2% compared to -4.8% last fall.
At primarily online institutions, where more than 90% of students enrolled exclusively online prior to the pandemic, undergraduate enrollment has grown by 3.2% from last fall. The center says this was largely due to younger students ages 18 to 20, for whom enrollment growth totaled 23.4% over two years since fall 2020.
What’s working at some colleges
Indian River State College (IRSC) in Florida is among community colleges that are seeing a significant increase in enrollments this fall. It is reporting an 8.9% increase, with more students choosing in-person and hybrid options, according to the college. And the number of first-time-in-college enrollments set a record at more than 3,200, surpassing a 10-year average of 2,242.
College officials credit, in part, the IRSC Promise program, which the college rolled out this spring. Students don’t need to show financial need to apply, and they must maintain the minimum GPA of 2.0 required to graduate high school.
“Recent high school graduates have had a radically different academic and social experience than their predecessors,” says Elizabeth Gaskin, vice president for student success. “The Promise program doesn’t have academic or income requirements because the college didn’t want to penalize these students who navigated much of their high school careers during the pandemic, or their families, who, during this period of historic high inflation, might have to choose between sending a child to college or not.”
Meanwhile, the Maine Community College System (MCCS) also has seen an enrollment increase, up 12%, buoyed by its new Free College Scholarship to re-engage those whose school experience was severely disrupted by Covid. Total headcount this fall is 16,791 students, up from 15,004 students last year, according to the official tally on October 15. First-time student enrollment is up 28% from last year.
Slightly more than one-third of this year’s fall class (5,574 students) are eligible for the new scholarship because they graduated from high school or earned a diploma in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
“The large number of high school graduates from the Classes of 2020 and 2021 really shows how the Free College Scholarship accomplished what it set out to do – draw in students who paused their education or maybe decided they weren’t going to pursue college in the midst of the pandemic,” MCCS President David Daigler said in a release.
Related article: Fingers crossed about enrollments
A closer look at Free College students shows that 1,232 students graduated in 2020 and 2021 but had never enrolled in college before, he said, adding: “That’s huge.”
The scholarship is one component of the system’s efforts to get students to re-engage, according to MCCS. Other factors that are helping enrollment bounce back at the college include:
- Expanded high-demand nursing programs
- New, high-demand, one-year certificate and two-year degree programs
- Increased outreach to high schools and adult learning centers
- More staff in admissions and advising
- More marketing
- Participating in more community and business events