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Four smiling students walk together in front of a campus building.

New data suggest higher ed enrollment is increasing, especially at community colleges, which suffered the harshest enrollment blows during the pandemic.

Eduard Figueres/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Undergraduate enrollment rose in fall 2023 for the first time since the pandemic, according to the latest report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The report, released today, found that undergraduate enrollment grew 1.2 percent in fall 2023 compared to the prior year, adding roughly 176,000 students to college enrollment rolls nationally.

The new data contained especially good news for community colleges. Enrollment at these institutions increased 2.6 percent, a gain of about 118,000 students, signaling the continuation of a welcome turnaround after staggering enrollment losses during the pandemic. Both private and public four-year institutions had increases of less than 0.6 percent in comparison.

But Doug Shapiro, executive director of the center, said while the report results are hopeful, it’s too early to fully celebrate the recovery of higher ed.

“Undergraduates have finally turned the corner, it appears, after years of decline,” Shapiro said in a media briefing Tuesday. “And I’m sure that many colleges are hoping that they have finally seen the bottom and are now starting to recover … But we’re still in a deep hole. The total number of undergraduates is over a million fewer than the number enrolled five years ago, in 2018.”

Demand for Short-Term Credentials

Community colleges with a focus on vocational programs experienced particularly high growth—a 16 percent increase in enrollment compared to 2022 and 3.7 percent above enrollment at these institutions pre-pandemic, in fall 2019. In contrast, community colleges focused on transfers to four-year colleges saw modest growth, a 0.2 percent increase, and their enrollment is still well below 2019 levels.

The number of students enrolled in associate degree programs also notably increased for the first time since the research center started tracking enrollment data in 2015; associate degree program enrollment rose 2.2 percent, compared to bachelor’s degree program enrollment, which rose 0.7 percent. However, enrollments in both types of programs remain below fall 2019 levels—they were 14.2 percent lower for associate degree programs and 3.3 percent lower for bachelor’s degree programs.

Undergraduate certificate programs also fared well, with enrollment rising for a third consecutive fall, albeit at a slower rate than the surge seen in fall 2021. Enrollment in these programs increased 1.8 percent in fall 2023 and is now 15.6 percent above pre-pandemic levels.

Shapiro said a “recurring theme” post-pandemic is that students are increasingly attracted to vocational programs and shorter-term degrees offered at community colleges.

Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said students today are “very practical minded.”

“Many of them really are thinking about postsecondary education primarily for their career ambitions, looking at opportunities to acquire skills that they can use to get better jobs, to move ahead,” he said. And “rightly or wrongly, there’s just an increased perception that higher education is unaffordable.”

Community colleges, especially their shorter-term programs, “offer a pretty good alternative for the budget-minded consumer,” he said.

(The Accelerating Recovery in Community Colleges Network, a group of research teams including the CCRC, contributed funding for the enrollment report to beef up its community college data.)

Brock added that four-year institutions, particularly the more selective ones, have also gotten a “bad rap” for how political debates play out on their campuses, including the recent controversy over university presidents’ statements on antisemitism and the war between Israel and Gaza.

Brock believes those concerns about universities are “misplaced,” but he wouldn’t be surprised if some students opted for community colleges because these institutions seem less “caught up in some of the political debates or culture wars that four-year institutions are,” though that dynamic would be “hard to measure.”

Changing Demographics

The report also found that the recent trend of high school students taking dual-enrollment courses continued to bolster community college enrollments. Dual enrollments increased 5.2 percent at these institutions in fall 2023 over the prior year.

The number of older adults, ages 30 and up, attending community colleges also grew 2.2 percent, bucking previous trends, which saw their numbers falling for at least a decade.

Brock believes that as community colleges have improved their technology and increased their online and hybrid offerings, their programs have become more flexible and attractive to older students looking to gain new skills that lead to higher-paying jobs.

Overall undergraduate enrollment growth was largely driven by continuing students and those who stopped out but returned to college, rather than new incoming freshmen, Shapiro noted.

The report indicated that freshman enrollment only increased 0.8 percent over all, and that growth was largely among community college freshmen and older freshmen, ages 21 and above. The number of freshmen ages 20 or younger stayed stagnant in fall 2023 compared to the year before.

Hironao Okahana, assistant vice president and executive director of the Education Futures Lab at the American Council on Education, emphasized that students can “have more than one touch point with a postsecondary education, and not all students have a linear trajectory in their postsecondary journey.”

Meanwhile, enrollment among students from racial or ethnic minority groups rose, except for Native American enrollment, which fell by 1 percent. Black enrollment grew 0.7 percent, Hispanic enrollment increased 3.6 percent and Asian enrollment rose 3.2 percent. However, enrollment of Black and Hispanic freshmen declined, 4.3 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively. The number of Native American freshmen also dropped 3.5 percent.

But Shapiro noted that these data points are unclear given that growing numbers of students, particularly freshmen, chose not to report their race or ethnicity. Compared to the year before, 35 percent more freshmen and 16 percent more undergraduates over all opted not to disclose their racial or ethnic identities. He believes the U.S. Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action last summer may partly account for this shift.

Enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities notably dropped 3.5 percent after growing 2.5 percent the previous year. Shapiro said fewer HBCUs provided their enrollment data this year than in the past, which might be affecting the accuracy of the numbers, but the decline is still a “dramatic shift” that suggests “they may be slipping back” after enrollment gains in recent years.

A bright note in the report was that the number of traditional-age students from lower-income neighborhoods grew faster than their higher-income peers, between 1.5 and 1.7 percent, compared to 1.1 percent for students from wealthier neighborhoods. However, enrollment from the poorest neighborhoods is still down 2.9 percent compared to 2019, while enrollment from the highest-income neighborhoods is only 0.8 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels.

Okahana said, over all, he found the report’s results heartening.

“The workforce will continue to have a demand for college-educated individuals,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see people entering into the postsecondary ecosystem and getting themselves into the trajectory of economic mobility that postsecondary education is trying to facilitate.”

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