College enrolment decline caused by COVID starts to slow

Helped by an increase of 4.3% or an addition of 97,000 freshmen over 2021 numbers, the decline in college enrolment in the United States caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has lessened to 0.6% (94,000 students) when compared with 2021, says the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s (NSCRC) final report for fall 2022.

In total, there are 1.23 million fewer undergraduates in America’s colleges and universities than there were prior to the pandemic. After two years of bucking the downward trend, by 3% and 2.4% in 2020 and 2021, respectively, total graduate student enrolment dropped 1.2% in 2022 or by about 40,000 students.

“It’s encouraging to start seeing signs of recovery in the numbers of new freshmen. Although classes are still well below pre-pandemic levels, especially at community colleges [many of which now offer four-year BAs], the fact that they are swinging upward in all sectors is a positive indicator for the future,” says Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSCRC.

Increases by institutional type

The largest gains were posted by private for-profit four-year schools, which include the largely online University of Phoenix (enrolling 84,000), which saw an increase of 4.9% in full-time students over last year. These colleges and universities also saw a 5.1% increase in part-time students, which more than erased last year’s decline of 3.6%.

Public two-year colleges – the community colleges that, because they are less expensive and have more flexible hours, act as an escalator by which lower-income and racialised Americans get their ‘foot in the door’ of higher education – saw a drop of 0.8% in full-time students, which was partially offset by the rise of 1% in part-time enrolment.

Referring to community colleges, Shapiro says: “This is a very promising sign for higher education. After two straight years in which the numbers of new entering students sat at 10% below pre-pandemic levels, it’s very encouraging to see signs of a recovery here, even though there’s still a long way to go before the freshman classes return to their 2019 levels.”

Two notes of caution, however, are warranted. First, according to Shapiro, the growth in community college enrolment figures is due largely to high school students who are enrolled in community college courses, what’s known as ‘dual enrolment’. This figure jumped 12% last year. Without it, the community colleges would have seen a slight decline of 1.2%.

Secondly, two of three fastest growing programmes at community colleges are not those that lead to transfer to four-year degrees: personal and culinary services, and precision production grew by 8% and 7.4%, respectively. The third, computer and information services and support services, rose by 7.2%, tracking the increase of 10.4% in computer science majors also recorded at four-year institutions.

By contrast, at community colleges, liberal arts and science and general humanities, and biomedical and biological sciences majors declined by 0.1% and 12.1%, respectively.

In comparison to the last year before the pandemic, public four-year colleges and universities enrolled 267,684 fewer students than before the pandemic. The City University of New York, for example, declined by 1.2% in 2022 on top of drops of 2.3% and 1.4% the previous two years.

Nor have private non-profit four-year institutions recovered. After a sector-wide drop of 1.9% of undergraduates last year, the sector lost almost 80,000 students (-1.4%) by 2022. Three of the four sub-sectors – selective, competitive and less selective – grew, albeit at slow rates.

America’s selective schools enrolled 2.5% more students than the previous year while the competitive and less selective schools saw increases of 2.3% and 9.6% respectively. Somewhat surprisingly, the nation’s most selective schools, which enrolled 12.9% more students in 2021 than they had in 2020, experienced a 2.1% drop in freshman enrolment.

In the first year of the pandemic, colleges and universities experienced a larger percentage drop among men (-6%) than among women (-1.7%). Last year, though still down, men lost less ground than did women, -3% compared to -3.7%.

In 2022, the figures reversed, with men gaining 0.2% for a total of almost 6.1 million students and women dropping 1.5%, which brought their total to 8.2 million students. (Another 700,000 students did not indicate their gender; this category saw an increase in students of 1.9% after last year’s decline of 4.2%.)

Drop in white males historically large

NSCRC’s survey of 3,500 colleges and universities allows for a fine-grained picture of race and ethnicity. The drop in the numbers of undergraduate white males has slowed from 6.9% and 6% in the first two years of the pandemic, but at 2.9% last year it is still historically large.

(NSCRC’s survey does not allow it to “get into the heads of prospective students”, as Shapiro put it. Yet, it is reasonable to assume that a large number of 18- to 23-year-olds who would traditionally have been enrolling in college or university did not do so because of the strong job market in the United States where the unemployment rate is at 50-year lows.)

The percentage drop for undergraduate white women, which was less than for men in the first two years of the pandemic, at -3.5% and -6.4%, was -4.3% last year.

Black men have also seen their percentage drops fall, from -6.9% to -4.4% to -0.6% in 2022. The percentage drop of black women in post-secondary education also continues, down 2.4% or 23,000 in 2022 following drops of 5.1% and 2%.

The 2.8% growth in the number of undergraduate Latinx on campus in 2022 more than erased the previous year’s decline of 2.7% but not the decline of 6.5% in the first year of the pandemic. Latinx women, however, grew by only 0.7%, which, combined with their decline in numbers of 3.8% in 2021, meant that there were still well over 100,000 fewer Latinx women enrolled in undergraduate studies than before the pandemic.

Asian Americans also registered improving numbers. After drops of 2.2% and 2.4%, last year the percentage of Asian men in undergraduate studies grew by 2%. The cumulative decline in numbers of Asian women for 2020-21 of 2.4% was erased by their 2.4% growth in 2022.

Overall graduate enrolment declined by 1.1% for men and 2% for women, which reversed the trend that had buoyed university enrolment during the first two years of the pandemic. In 2020, men had seen an increase of 1.9% and women 4.8%. A year later, the numbers for men were still strong, up 1.7%, and even stronger for women, up 2.6%.

Last year, however, there were 12,000 fewer male graduate students in the United States than the year before (a drop of 1.1%), while the percentage of women in graduate school dropped 2%.

Declines were registered by white, Latinx and black men, falling 6%, 9.7% and 1%, respectively. By contrast, there were 118,988 men who identified as Asian in graduate school in 2020, an increase of 20% since before the pandemic. Both Asian and black women increased last year, 4.6% and 0.6% respectively. The number of white women in graduate school declined by 4.7%, almost 3.7 percentage points more than Latinx women numbers.

While Shapiro could not say what has caused the overall drop in graduate enrolment, he said that NSCRC did not think it was because of the decrease in new freshmen entering the system during the pandemic nor declines in the number of undergraduates completing their studies.

“If we look at the completion reports for the last couple of years, we haven’t seen a dramatic decline in the number of four-year degree completers. Most of the declines [in enrolment] at the four-year institutions have been in the last two years, ie, the last two freshmen entering classes. So, we wouldn’t yet see that smaller wave of students reaching graduate schools at this point,” he says.

Few declines in majors reversed

In terms of majors, few of the declines registered since the start of the pandemic have been reversed. Liberal arts and sciences saw a decline of 4.8% in 2022, which followed declines of 2.7% and 6.4% in each of the previous two years. (These last declines, it is worth noting, followed declines of 2.8% and 1.3% in the two years before the pandemic.)

Education declined by 2.7%, which was a slightly higher rate than in each of the previous two years. The decline in communication studies slowed to 3% from 8%, as did the decline in English studies, which dropped only 1.5% compared with 8% in 2021 and 6% in 2020.

With the exception of community colleges, where biomedical and biological sciences declined by 2% in 2020, in the first year of the pandemic, when health care and hospital workers were universally praised as being ‘heroes’, these fields grew by 0.2% at four-year colleges and universities and by 4% at the graduate level.

By 2021, the pot-banging was just a memory and the percent of doctors and nurses reporting feeling burnt out was 40% and 49%, respectively, according to the study “Emotional exhaustion among US health care workers before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2019-2021”, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

With the media also filled with stories of burnt-out health care providers, the numbers of graduate students in biomedical and biological sciences dropped 1.4% and at the undergraduate level by 2.1%. The decline accelerated last year to 4.8% at the undergraduate level and 1.6% at the graduate level. At the community college level, the drop last year was an eye-watering 12.1%, following on the heels of the 7.8% drop in 2021.

While beyond the scope of NSCRC’s study, it is safe to say that decline in the number of students at all levels studying in the health science fields will make it extremely difficult for the United States to fill the hundreds of thousands of positions presently open and the hundreds of thousands of positions that will become vacant over the next few years due to the retirement of the Baby Boom generation.

Falling births’ impact is varied

For at least a decade, education demographers have been warning that because of the drop in births during the 2008 recession, starting around 2025 the university-aged cohort will decline by some 500,000 students each year. The decline, however, is not uniform across the country.

Texas, for example, saw a 1.7% increase in enrolment last year, while Wyoming saw a 7.6% increase and Washington State and South Carolina saw rises of 3.3% and 3.6%, respectively.

The story is very different in the Midwest and Northeast. Minnesota saw a decline of more than 4%, Missouri -3.5% and Ohio -1.5%.

At first glance, New York State’s slight drop does not seem all that important, but because it has the third largest number of students in higher education (1,046,269), the state’s decline of 1% translates into more than 100,000 fewer enrolments in higher education, a larger number than such fast-growing states as North Carolina, which has 542,942 students in higher education, and Arizona, which has almost half a million college and university students.

Pennsylvania’s decline of 1.4% is part of a decades long trend that has heavily impacted the state’s public universities. In the two years before the pandemic, the Keystone State’s public universities saw their cohort shrink from 232,010 to 220,272.

Last year, the cohort was just below 200,000, which will increase the pressure on the state government to either continue amalgamating institutions or closing some. The same budgetary pressures exist in, for example, Michigan and Minnesota: in each state the public universities and colleges have lost 25,000 students since 2017.

Because the population declines will be greater in the Midwest and Northeast, I asked Shapiro if these regions are now falling off what the demographers call the ‘demographic cliff’. He answered, not yet.

“If you look at the demographic projections, there’s still a dramatic decline in the coming years that is larger than what we’re seeing in the Midwest and the Northeast right now. So, I wouldn’t say we’re on the cliff now. But some regions are certainly stepping, let’s say, closer to the edge.”