You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A group of orange silhouettes heads one direction while a group of gray silhouettes with backpacks heads under a marble archway

Despite overall undergraduate growth, freshman enrollments are down 3.6 percent, fostering concern that more declines are on the way.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images | Rawpixel

There is good news and bad news in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s latest enrollment report.

First, the good news: undergraduate enrollment climbed by 2.1 percent this fall, its first total increase since 2020. Enrollment increases for Black, Latino and Asian students—by 2.2 percent, 4.4 percent and 4 percent, respectively—were especially notable after last year’s declines.

The bad news is that freshman enrollment declined by 3.6 percent, nearly undoing last year’s gain of 4.6 percent and leaving first-year enrollment less than a percentage point higher than it was in fall 2021, during the thick of the pandemic. Those declines were most pronounced for white students—and, perhaps most surprisingly, at four-year institutions with lower acceptance rates, reversing years of growth trends for the most selective colleges and universities.

The boost in total enrollment is long-awaited balm for an American higher education system thoroughly bruised by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the “unusual pattern” of discrepancy between continuing and incoming students could be a harbinger of challenges to come, said Doug Shapiro, the NSC’s executive research director.

“That’s troubling … and quite a surprise, especially when the number of overall students has increased,” Shapiro said.

So should colleges see this year’s slight uptick in overall undergraduate enrollment as a light at the end of a tunnel? Or is it more likely a fleeting glimmer of hope before the imminent decline that the first-year numbers suggest?

Shapiro said the data weren’t conclusive one way or another but instead represent two distinct possibilities. The best case, he said, is that they illustrate the pandemic’s long shadow, which still lingers over high school graduates’ college-going choices; the worst is that a full recovery may be out of reach for a while longer.

The “Stay Informed” report is preliminary and represents just 1,500 institutions—about half the number that usually participate in the NSC’s full fall enrollment survey, which will be released in January. Still, Shapiro said, the data are usually an accurate predictor of the complete enrollment picture.

Other highlights from the report include:

  • Graduate enrollment increased by about 0.7 percent, buoyed by a 5.6 percent increase in graduate certificate programs and reversing a downward trend in 2022.
  • Community college enrollment rose 4.4 percent, accounting for 58.9 percent of the undergraduate increase. Of that growth, 40 percent came from dual-enrolled high school students—continuing last fall’s surging growth trends in community college concurrent enrollment.
  • Female enrollment increased by 1.2 percent, about half the rate of male students, who saw a 2.2 percent increase—continuing the post-pandemic trend of slowing female enrollment that first emerged in 2021.
  • Overall undergraduate enrollment grew at both ends of the age spectrum, with the 18-20 cohort and the 30-plus age group each up by 3 percent. 

Sunny With a Chance of Downpour

The report captured a number of positive trends. Growth at HBCUs was “an especially bright spot,” Shapiro said: historically Black colleges and universities saw a 6 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment this fall, appearing to confirm predictions that the institutions would be more popular destinations for Black students in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down race-conscious admissions.

But the dip in freshman enrollment does not bode well for the future outlook of postsecondary enrollments, Shapiro said. The declines were concentrated at four-year institutions, with first-year enrollment falling 6.1 percent at public institutions and 4 percent at private nonprofits; meanwhile, freshman enrollment is up by nearly 11 percent at for-profit institutions, reversing last year’s trend of increases at nonprofits and a 3.2 percent drop at for-profits.

First-year enrollment dropped for every racial group except Asian students, who saw a 2 percent bump. But it was especially steep for white freshmen, whose numbers fell by nearly 10 percent—the largest decline of any individual group in the report.

“We’ve all been scratching our heads over that. It’s quite a large decline,” Shapiro said. He added that one possible explanation for the nosedive is that white students are less likely to self-report their racial identity because of a “perceived disincentive” in admissions—something the Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action could reverse next application cycle.

Traditional students in the 18- to 20-year-old age range were hit hardest, down 5 percent this fall, while enrollment of freshmen over age 21 rose 10 percent.

Shapiro said that declines in traditional-age and white freshmen in particular could be explained by shifting demographic trends, but that the so-called demographic cliff projected by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in 2020 should still be a few years away. WICHE initially predicted the number of high school graduates would reach its peak in 2025, producing a few years of growth before the declines settled in; for whatever reason, that has not happened.

“That could be a result of some of the pandemic-induced losses in student attendance at K-12, losses in learning among high school students during the pandemic, where students are just less enthusiastic about college now,” Shapiro said. “Or it could be that we’re starting to see the effects of that demographic cliff … with the magnitude of declines over the past few years, it’s almost like we’ve already reached it.”

Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy at the left-leaning think tank New America, said the decline in traditional-age white freshmen bodes especially poorly for the vast array of struggling private colleges in the demographically challenged, and historically white, Northeast and industrial Midwest regions—institutions that have already been closing in large numbers over the past five years.

“Those are also colleges that are, mostly, in the market of enrolling white freshmen,” he said. “For them, these [decline] numbers are pretty large.”

Freshman enrollment fell most sharply at institutions the NSC categorizes as highly selective, very competitive and competitive—4.7 percent, 7.6 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively—whereas last year enrollment at those institutions either grew or declined marginally. Total undergraduate enrollment also increased more at less selective institutions than competitive ones.

Shapiro guessed that this switch-up was due to selective institutions correcting for overenrolling after the first year of pandemic declines, taking deferred applicants in high numbers without decreasing their accepted class sizes.

“But it’s hard to say how much of that is the institutions and how much of that is the students opting for more community colleges or less expensive institutions,” he added.

Shorter, Cheaper, Faster—Smarter?

Community colleges once again represented the majority of the undergraduate enrollment increase; last fall, it was the only sector to grow. Carey called it a heartening development considering that those institutions, and the underrepresented students they often serve, were hit hardest by the pandemic.

“The students who got into selective institutions were going anyway, or taking a year off at most. The pandemic really disrupted mostly those whose connection to higher ed was more tenuous, who were maybe on the fence about going to college at all before it hit,” he said. “It’s great to see a rebound for that group.”

A closer look reveals that credential programs and dual enrollment fueled the increase more than anything else, suggesting that the appetite for workforce pathways and short-term degree programs is high and growing even as interest in four-year degrees declines. Associate degree enrollment rose by 3.3 percent, and the number of students pursuing short-term credentials increased by nearly 10 percent.

“There’s a continuing trend of students choosing shorter-term degrees,” Shapiro said. “Associate degrees are outpacing bachelors’, and credentials are outpacing associate degrees … students want shorter, cheaper degrees with more ties to workforce, more [return on investment].”

Dual enrollment among current high schoolers, largely at community colleges, also continues to drive upward enrollment trends. Students under 18 had the largest enrollment bump this fall, at nearly 9 percent; over the past two years the group has surged by 20 percent.

Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said some of the more dramatic increases can be attributed to two-year institutions climbing out of the deep post-pandemic hole. But he noted that other factors are also at play—namely, shifting attitudes about the value of four-year degrees.

“Higher ed is not getting a lot of good press these days,” he said. “Whether it’s around affordability, debt, preparing for the job market, I think perhaps in some ways the negative press has been a little more directed toward the four-year sector and could be benefiting community colleges indirectly.”

Carey said that was a plausible thesis, especially with a strong job market exacerbating the challenges of recruiting high school graduates for four-year institutions.

“A lot of four-year institutions are competing with the job market,” he said. “Some of those shorter-term degrees could represent an attempt to compromise with it.”

Next Story

Written By

More from Traditional-Age