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The college enrollment drop is finally letting up. That's the good news

LA Johnson

Updated February 2, 2023 at 1:47 PM ET

A previous version of this story reflected the National Student Clearinghouse's preliminary enrollment estimates for fall 2022. The story has been updated to reflect the Clearinghouse's final estimates.

Undergraduate college enrollment is continuing its years-long decline, though at a much less drastic rate than during the pandemic. According to data released Thursday, Feb. 2, U.S. colleges and universities saw a drop of just 94,000 undergraduate students, or 0.6%, between the fall of 2021 and 2022. This follows a historic decline that began in the fall of 2020; over two years, more than 1 million fewer students enrolled in college.

"I certainly wouldn't call this a recovery yet," said Doug Shapiro, who leads the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse. "There's bad news and good news here."

The declines in undergrad enrollment were concentrated at four-year public schools. Private non-profit enrollment stayed essentially the same as fall 2021, while community colleges saw a tiny bump in enrollment – almost half a percentage point – thanks in part to an increase in dual-enrolled high school students. That's really good news, as community colleges were the hardest hit during the pandemic, with enrollment drops in the double digits.

For-profit colleges saw a 5% enrollment increase.

Shapiro said this week that the final estimates show a marked increase in the number of first-year undergraduates at all types of universities.

"It's very encouraging to start seeing signs of a recovery here, even though there's still a long way to go before freshman classes return to their 2019 levels."

For this report, the National Student Clearinghouse collected data from more than 3,600 schools, representing more than 18 million undergraduate and graduate students.

Across the country, colleges have also been reporting their own fall enrollment ups and downs. A free community college program in Maine, which targets high school students who graduated during the pandemic, led to big enrollment gains there: Nearly 2,000 more students enrolled at campuses across the state last fall, a 12% jump from a year before.

But many other places followed the national trend of decline. At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, a regional four-year public college, enrollment was down 3%. About 45 miles south, another branch of the university that is also a historically Black school, in Pine Bluff, saw enrollment go down by 7% compared to 2021.

"We are analyzing the data to determine where and why most of the decline occurred," Mary Hester-Clifton, director of communications and institutional advancement, told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "There is no singular reason for the decrease, [but] it appears that the pandemic and economic conditions are affecting our enrollment."

There was hope that would-be undergraduates who chose to take a year off in 2020 and in 2021, would return to college, especially given the expanded opportunities for in-person learning this fall. This report is the first indication that may be happening: Fall freshmen jumped by about 4.3% compared to last year, including 6.1% at community colleges and 3.9% at public four year institutions.

"This is a very promising sign for higher education after two straight years in which the number of new entering students sat at 10% below pre-pandemic levels," Shapiro said this week.

Enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been trending downward since around 2012, falling by at least 1% a year. The pandemic turbocharged the declines at the undergrad level. Now, the decline has resumed at a steadier pace.

Graduate program enrollment, which saw an increase in the fall of 2020 but a slight decline in 2021, continued to decline last fall, though numbers are still above pre-pandemic levels.

"My theory would be, I think in the initial shock of the pandemic in fall 2020, the fresh-minted college graduate wanted to buy themselves a little time by enrolling in master's degree programs," Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the Clearinghouse, told NPR when the preliminary estimates were released in October. "As the labor market is turning in the other direction, maybe there is more interest in getting employment rather than seeking further education at the graduate level."

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Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.