Higher Ed enrollment fell again this fall, albeit at a slightly slower pace

New data The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center delivers a bleak message for college attendance in the fall of 2022: Undergraduate enrollment, which has been under severe pressure since the start of the pandemic, continues to decline.

While the number of undergraduate enrollments this fall fell by 1.1 percent compared to the same period in 2020 and 2021, the decline in undergraduate enrollment continues to hit all sectors, according to data released Thursday.

In the fall of 2022, the number of admissions also fell by 1.1 percent. While enrollment declines have slowed, a return to pre-pandemic participation levels is far from certain.

“After two consecutive years of historically large enrollment declines, it is especially concerning that the current numbers are not rebounding, especially among freshmen,” Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, told reporters.

Freshman enrollment declined 1.5 percent throughout this fall, fueled by losses from that group to four-year institutions in every sector. At what the center calls “highly selective colleges,” where at least half of the students who apply are rejected, freshman enrollment fell 5.6 percent after a 10.7 percent increase in fall 2021.

At one point, it was expected that high school seniors who skipped college in 2020 or 2021, thus causing a sharp drop in freshman enrollment, would enter college late. But “there’s not a lot of evidence in those numbers that they’re coming back now,” Shapiro said.

Some of the good news was at community colleges, where a 0.9 percent increase in freshman enrollment this fall suggests freshman enrollment appears to have stabilized after the pandemic-induced losses were among the hardest hit in the sector.

Registration data also shows a gender gap. The number of male and female students fell this fall, but the decline was much steeper for women. And the difference in each group’s drop rate has grown.

“This points to the unique challenges female students face as the pandemic continues longer,” Mikyung Ryu, the center’s director of scholarly publications, told reporters.

For historically black colleges and universities, trends this fall looked particularly positive, according to the data. While the number of HBCUs that reported to the center was small, their student enrollment growth — 2.5 percent — reversed a 1.7 percent decline at those institutions in the fall of 2021.

Colleges, where more than 90 percent of students are enrolled online, were another bright spot, largely due to growth in 18- to 20-year-olds. Undergraduate enrollment at online colleges increased 3.2 percent from last year, a small number of those who reported data.

The center’s preliminary data, which reflects enrollment as of Sept. 29, is based on 10.3 million students at 62 percent of institutions reporting to the center.

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