Spring Enrollment Takes a Plunge

Community colleges continued to see the largest enrollment declines this fall, with 9.5 percent fewer students enrolled. Experts say two-year colleges have focused on retaining existing students this year.

June 10, 2021
 
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Enrollment of 18- to 24-year-old college students declined by 5 percent this spring.

More than 600,000 fewer students enrolled at United States colleges and universities this spring compared to the same time last year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Total enrollment fell by 3.5 percent year over year from 17.5 million students to 16.9 million -- the largest year-over-year drop in a decade.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its final spring enrollment report today. The report captures data from 97 percent of degree-granting institutions in the United States.

The enrollment declines outpace declines this past fall, but the spring semester numbers also include students who withdrew from college last fall and did not return this spring, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the enrollment declines are concentrated at community colleges, where enrollment fell by 9.5 percent year over year. About 476,000 fewer students enrolled at community colleges this term when compared with last year, the report said.

Associate degree-seeking students account for most of the enrollment drop at community colleges. About 10.5 percent fewer associate degree-seeking students enrolled at community colleges this spring when compared with the same time last year. The number of undergraduate certificate-seeking students at community colleges declined by 4.8 percent this spring.

Low-income students were more likely to withdraw from higher education during the pandemic than high-income students or students with undergraduate degrees, according to Shapiro. As a result, community colleges have experienced greater hits to their student ranks over the past year.

“If you didn’t already have a degree, you are much more likely to be working in low-wage jobs. Front-line workers are much more likely to be out of work and to be much more stressed financially during the recession and the pandemic,” Shapiro said. “Those are the students particularly that we see disappearing from community colleges, especially this year.”

This income and education gap is also evident in the disparity between undergraduate and graduate enrollments. Across the board, undergraduate enrollment fell by 4.8 percent. Enrollment of traditional-aged college students -- defined as students ages 18 to 24 -- declined by 5 percent year over year, the report said.

Eighteen- to 24-year-old students are the bread and butter for community colleges, said Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit focused on community college reform. Many dual-enrolled students -- high school students also enrolled in college courses -- opted not to enroll in college this year, she said.

“That’s a little surprising, but then not surprising when you think about what happened to the senior year of high school for many of those dually enrolled students,” Stout said.

Meanwhile, graduate enrollment jumped up by 4.6 percent this spring, with 124,000 more students joining the sector.

“Those who already had a degree when this pandemic hit were less likely to lose work and most likely already earning a decent income,” Shapiro said. “They were able to take advantage of the crisis year to reinvest in their education.”

Many community colleges have focused on retaining the students who have continued to enroll, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Everyone expected community college enrollment to skyrocket. Clearly, that didn't happen,” she said. “I think a lot of colleges took the time to reimagine and re-engage with how they were supporting students and what their curriculum looks like.”

There were no strong regional trends in enrollment declines, said Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Colleges and universities in Southern states fared slightly better, with total enrollment declining by 1.9 percent year over year. The Northwest and Midwest regions saw the largest enrollment declines this spring, with student head count falling by 4 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively.

California lost the most total students, with 122,752 fewer students enrolled this spring when compared to last. The drop represented an enrollment decline of 5.3 percent in the state. New York, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania also enrolled more than 20,000 fewer students this spring.

New Mexico saw the largest percentage enrollment decline this spring. Total enrollment in the state fell by 11.4 percent year over year. Delaware, Michigan, Kansas and Wyoming also saw declines of at least 6.2 percent this term.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire, Utah, West Virginia, Nebraska, Virginia, Idaho and Maryland observed total enrollment increases this spring.

Enrollment among men this spring fell at twice the rate of women, the report showed. About 400,000 fewer men enrolled at colleges and universities -- a 5.5 percent decline across the board. Enrollment among women declined by 2 percent, with 203,000 fewer women enrolled this spring when compared with last year.

“That’s an acceleration of a trend that we’ve been tracking for 10 years,” Shapiro said.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center also looked at enrollment trends among majors. Business, health care and liberal arts were the most common majors for two-year and four-year college students this spring. Computer science and psychology also saw enrollment growth this spring, with 3 percent and 4.8 percent more students enrolled, respectively.

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