U.S. college enrollment plummets; Michigan among the worst

HERNDON, Va.—This spring’s overall college enrollment fell to 16.9 million students from 17.5 million, marking a one-year decline of 3.5% or 603,000 students, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

This is seven times worse than the decline a year earlier, and the largest decline in year-over-year percent change and student headcount since spring 2011, which is the first year the Research Center published enrollment data. The second steepest enrollment decline was recorded in Fall 2020.

Undergraduate students accounted for the entire decline, with a 4.9% drop or 727,000 students. In contrast, graduate enrollment jumped by 4.6 percent, adding more than 124,000 students. Every institution sector saw an undergraduate enrollment drop this spring, including for-profit four-year colleges which had shown the only positive numbers in the fall. Community colleges remain hardest hit by far, however, declining 9.5% or 476,000 fewer students. More than 65% of the total undergraduate enrollment losses this spring occurred in the community college sector.

“The final estimates for spring enrollment confirm the pandemic’s severe impact on students and colleges this year,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center. “How long that impact lasts will depend on how many of the missing students, particularly at community colleges, will be able to make their way back to school for the coming fall.”

California led the nation in enrollment loss by headcount with a decrease of nearly 123,000 students. New Mexico declined the most by percentage by dropping 11.4%. Michigan placed in the top five states for both declining enrollment (-29,189) and percentage drop (-6.4%). Meanwhile, only seven states increased enrollments, with New Hampshire rising 10.8% or 18,153 students. Newly added this year, state-level spring enrollments are broken out by institution sector.

Traditional college-age students, 18 to 24, declined 5% or more than 524,000 students, including a steep loss of 13.2% or more than 365,000 students at community colleges. Adult students, 25 or older, show a 1.2% decline or nearly 75,000 students.

Enrollment among male students continued to fall greater than female students. Men declined by 5.5% or 400,000 students and women dropped 2% or 203,000 students compared with last spring.

Business, healthcare, and liberal arts continue to be the most common undergraduate majors for both four-year and two-year college students. For year-over-year percent change, computer sciences and psychology showed the largest enrollment growth at four-year colleges, +3% and +4.8%, respectively.

Among two-year college major fields with more than 100,000 students, enrollment fell most in visual and performing arts (-18.1%); security and protective services (-16.7%); multi- or inter-disciplinary studies (-14.1%); and liberal arts and general studies (-13.8%). Psychology and legal professions were the only growing fields for two-year college students this spring, +0.8% and +4.8%, respectively.

Top 5 States with Largest One-Year Decreases by Enrollment Numbers:

California                           -122,752 or -5.3%

New York                           -52,041 or -5.2%

Michigan                            -29,189 or -6.4%

Illinois                                -28,422 or -5.0%

Pennsylvania                     -22,738 or -3.8%

Top 5 States with Largest One-Year Declines by Percent Change in Enrollment:

New Mexico                       -11.4% or -11,453

Delaware                           -7.7% or -4,193

Michigan                            -6.4% or -29,189

Kansas                               -6.3% or -10,419

Wyoming                            -6.2% or -1,728

Only 7 States Showing Enrollment Increases from Last Spring:

New Hampshire                10.8% or 18,152 students

Utah                                  4.7% or 16,178 students

West Virginia                    2.8% or 3,675 students

Nebraska                          2.4% or 2,934 students

Virginia                              1.3% or 6,060 students

Idaho                                 0.4% or 363 students

Maryland                           0.7% or 2,223 students

The Current Term Enrollment Estimates Report Series is published in the spring and the fall of each year by the Research Center. It provides national enrollment estimates by institutional sector, enrollment intensity, age group, gender, major field as well as state-level enrollment estimates. Starting in fall 2020, state-level enrollment data are also shown by institution sector.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. The Research Center currently collects data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97 percent of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments in degree-granting institutions, as of 2019. Clearinghouse data track enrollments nationally and are not limited by institutional and state boundaries. To learn more, visit https://nscresearchcenter.org.


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