Student enrolment struggles to bounce back post-pandemic

In contrast to other sectors of the United States economy such as air travel, which has returned to pre-pandemic levels, the higher education sector continues to languish, says a new study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).

While the decline in first-year enrolment in college and university has slowed, from 3.4% in 2020 and 2.1% in 2021, it has continued at a rate of 1.1%. Unlike last year, when graduate student enrolment grew by 2.7%, this year it tracked undergraduate enrolment, falling by 1%.

The study also shows that irrespective of easier travelling and the return to normal visa regulations and visa granting regimens, the percentage of undergraduate international students in United States colleges and universities continues to decline, albeit at a slower rate than in 2021 when it fell by 6%; in 2022 the decline was 2.6%.

“After two straight years of historically large losses in student enrolment, it’s particularly troubling that the numbers are not climbing back at this point, especially among freshmen [first-year students],” says Doug Shapiro, the NSCRC’s executive research director.

Differences within sectors

The decline has not been the same across the different sectors of American higher education. Private-for-profit four-year universities saw a decline in the numbers of enrollees of 2.5%, following on last year’s drop of 4.4%. The first-year class in public four-year universities is 1.6% smaller than it was in 2021, with a cumulative decline over two years of 4.3%. Private four-year universities dropped by less than 1%.

These cumulative figures, however, do not tell the entire story. Except for the ‘Highly Selective’ category, which includes such schools as Harvard, Stanford, University of Michigan, University of Texas and Duke University, colleges and universities in the three other categories of four-year institutions saw their enrolment decline.

Schools in the ‘Very Competitive’ category saw their enrolment drop, albeit by only 0.4%, while enrolment in both public and private four-year colleges and universities in the ‘Competitive’ category dropped by 2.2%.

Public four-year colleges in the ‘Less Competitive’ category experienced a 3.1% decline in enrolment.

According to Mark Salisbury, co-founder and chief executive officer of TuitionFit, an online service that allows college and university applicants to see the real cost of schools they are thinking of applying to, the reason that ‘Less Competitive’ schools experienced a larger decline is because these schools serve the lower- and middle-class students for whom the decision to go to college or university can be economically risky.

“The way that American higher education has designed itself, especially in the way that the marketplace works, and the way it sort of hides prices until the end, combined with what we know about millions and millions of students that graduated and now have all kinds of debt and don’t have the salaries they were hoping for, means that the return on investment in tuition and fees is much more risky for them.

“If it doesn’t work out for them, it has a much more detrimental effect. People are more sceptical about whether higher education is worth it. And, as you get lower and lower on the socio-economic scale, that scepticism has more heft.”

Colleges and universities in the ‘Highly Selective’ category grew by only 0.5% this year. However, as Shapiro explained, this figure was on top of last year’s growth of 6.2%, when these institutions made up for the drop in 2020, the first year of COVID.

These schools “saw a big drop in the first year [of the pandemic] and an increase in the second year. So now they are back down in the third year. These are schools with a lot of market power and have far more applicants than seats. And so, they can really control their freshman class sizes to exactly what they want,” he says.

Decline in female student numbers

At both the undergraduate and graduate level, the reversal of the decades-long trend which saw women enrol in college and university in greater numbers than men has continued. Female undergraduates dropped by 2.1%, which, when added to the previous year’s decline, means there are 5.5% fewer undergraduate females on America’s campuses than before the pandemic hit.

At the graduate level, after growing by 2.7% in 2021, the number of female students declined by 1.9%.

The decline in undergraduate females was about 2.5% in both public four-year and private for-profit four-year institutions. At private non-profit four-year schools, which include the nation’s most expensive schools in which students are more likely to come from upper-income families, the drop was significantly less, only 1.6%. The largest drop in female enrolment at the graduate level was in private for-profit four-year universities: 5.4%.

Mikyung Ryu, the NSCRC’s director for research publications, said: “We are continuing to see female students continuing to struggle. We saw a steeper rate of decline for women to males, and it’s across the board at every level of education – undergraduate, graduate, as well as freshmen.

“I think this is indicative of some of the unique challenges facing women students as the pandemic is lingering longer. They may have particular urgent family support or educational support [issues]. This is very concerning.”

International students

The overall decline of 2.6% of first-year international students is not the same across the different sectors of higher education in the United States. The percentage of new international undergraduates in the nation’s private non-profit four-year schools was smaller than last year’s rise of 3% but still a relatively healthy 1.7%.

Surprisingly, Shapiro says, the percentage of new international students in two-year community colleges rose by 4.1%, which was a stark reversal of last year’s drop of 5.9%.

By contrast, the drop in enrolment in public four-year colleges and universities, which educate the vast majority of United States students in higher education, was 7%. Combined with last year’s drop of 11% in these institutions, this sector has experienced a 17.2% drop in the number of international students in two years.

Regional differences

Declines in enrolment vary across the country. The largest declines in first-year enrolment occurred in the Northeast and the Midwest. New York registered its second straight year of a 2.5% decline in enrolment, while the number of Ohio’s first years dropped 2.9% this year after last year’s decline of 2.7%. The decline in Michigan of 0.9% represents a drastic improvement over last year’s decline of 4.1%.

California, the country’s largest state, also saw improvement, from a decline in 2021 of 5.1% to a decline this year of 1.6%.

New Mexico, which lost 5.5% of its freshman class last year, saw an increase of 3.5%, perhaps a result of the state’s new programme that offers free tuition for the first two years of higher education. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama each saw increases, South Carolina’s being the largest at 3%.

During the first two years of the pandemic, the nation’s two-year community colleges, which, in addition to offering education in trades such as carpentry, are also a pathway by which poorer students (who are disproportionately black or Latinx) can access four-year institutions, did not enrol hundreds of thousands of students. The class of 2021 was 20.8% smaller than the pre-COVID class. This year, enrolment grew by 0.9%.

A large part of the growth in community colleges is due to an increase of 11.5% in the number of students taking advantage of dual enrolment programmes that allow high school students to take courses at the community college level.

Declines within disciplines

One of the biggest surprises in the NSCRC study was the continued decline in undergraduates enrolling in both biological and biomedical sciences and health professions. Both saw drops of 4.2% and 5.4%, respectively.

Combined with last year’s declines, biomedical and biological sciences now count 5.4% fewer first years, and health professions have 8.3% fewer students. At the masters level, biological and biomedical sciences have 5.9% fewer enrolees and health professions 4.2% fewer than they did last year.

Liberal arts, sciences and humanities courses have continued their downward slope, losing 3.1% of their students after last year’s loss of 4.1%. Engineering also lost students: 2.5% this past year after a drop of 3% the year before. At the masters level, the only academic sector to grow was computer and information services and support services. After growing by 22.1% last year, this sector grew by 21.4% in 2022.

Growth at historically black institutions

Perhaps the most promising piece of data in the NSCRC report is the growth in enrolment in the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). After seeing a 1.7% decline in enrolment in 2021, this year HBCUs enrolled 2.5% more students.

This growth has occurred against a complex news environment. On the one hand, there have been regular news reports of bomb threats against the HBCUs – three dozen were recorded in January 2022 alone.

Countering this threat have been good news stories. In July 2020, for example, MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife, donated US$40 million to Howard University (Washington, DC), perhaps the most famous HBCU, which counts US Vice President Kamala Harris as an alumna of its law school.

In December 2021, a report by the United Negro College Fund showed that 34.3% of graduates of HBCUs rose to either the middle or upper class. Predominantly white colleges and universities lifted only 15.8% of their black students into the middle or upper class.

The data shows that students have discounted the threats and, according to Salisbury, enrolled in greater numbers in the HBCUs because “these institutions have finally gotten some of the light shone on what they do that has been sorely lacking for decades”.

A moment later he added: “It’s nice to see those enrolments going in that [increasing] direction.”