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Public four-year colleges lost the most students this fall, with 251,400 fewer students enrolled.

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Enrollments continued to fall nationwide despite a full in-person return to campus last semester for many colleges and universities, the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show.

Total enrollment—which includes undergraduate and graduate students—dropped by 2.7 percent in fall 2021 compared with fall 2020, according to the clearinghouse report. Since the pandemic began in spring 2020, enrollment has declined by 5.1 percent across the board, with 937,500 fewer students enrolled at American colleges and universities. Undergraduate enrollment declined by 3.1 percent in fall 2021 compared with fall 2020. Graduate enrollment declined by 0.4 percent.

It could be a while until enrollment begins to climb again, said Mikyung Ryu, an analyst and director of research publications at the research center.

“Think about the virus infection status right now—things are not really looking up,” Ryu said. “Campus leadership is struggling to retain students, let alone fill the empty seats from the pre-pandemic years.”

All types of institutions experienced enrollment declines this fall. For-profit colleges saw the largest drop, with 11.1 percent fewer students enrolled.

Public two-year colleges experienced a 3.4 percent enrollment decline this fall—a smaller dip than the previous fall, when student numbers declined by 10.1 percent. Throughout the pandemic, public two-year colleges have been hit the hardest: enrollment in the sector has fallen by 13.2 percent since fall 2019. Student head counts at private, nonprofit four-year colleges declined by 1.6 percent in fall 2021, compared with a 0.1 percent decrease in fall 2020. 

Ryu was surprised by the enrollment drop at public four-year institutions. Student head counts at those colleges fell by 251,400 students this past fall, representing a 3.8 percent enrollment decline compared with the previous fall.

“They seemed to have weathered the storm of the pandemic pretty well, relative to all other sectors,” Ryu said. “That’s not quite the situation in fall 2021.”

Graph showing percent change in total enrollment from previous year by institutional sector: 2017 to 2021 / National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Full-time student enrollment fell by 2.9 percent—or 327,300 students—in fall 2021. Part-time enrollment declined by 2.4 percent this past fall, amounting to 148,800 fewer students, according to the clearinghouse data. Public colleges saw steeper declines in the number of full-time students than part-time students, while private colleges enrolled far fewer part-time students this past fall compared with the year prior.

Adult students saw the largest enrollment drop this fall, with 3.4 percent fewer students aged 24 and older enrolled at a college or university. Enrollment of traditional-age students, which the clearinghouse defines as students aged 18 to 24, fell by 2.4 percent across the board this past fall. The numbers of dual-enrolled high school students increased at public two-year colleges by 1.5 percent in fall 2021 but fell at both public four-year and private, nonprofit four-year institutions.

All states saw enrollment declines this past fall except for Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The number of women enrolled in higher education declined by 3 percent in fall 2021, the clearinghouse data showed. Meanwhile, the number of men enrolled fell by 2.2 percent. During past semesters of the pandemic, the number of men enrolled at colleges and universities has declined more than the number of women, Ryu said, noting that the decline in female student enrollment could be due to waning financial and familial support.

At the beginning of the pandemic, “women students may have had some support from family, especially those who are single moms and who are struggling to maintain job duties and family responsibilities at the same time,” Ryu said. “Maybe they ran out of support from the family or the people surrounding them in year two, as the pandemic is dragging on longer and longer.”

Despite larger declines for women this fall, male student enrollment has still been the hardest hit over the past two years.

The clearinghouse did not break down enrollment data by race in its most recent report.

Among undergraduate majors at four-year colleges, business, health, liberal arts, biology and engineering saw the steepest enrollment declines in fall 2021, while computer sciences and psychology experienced enrollment bumps. At two-year colleges, majors in homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting and related protective services experienced the largest enrollment declines, while computer sciences and engineering saw increases this past fall.

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