Undergrad numbers are growing, not because of freshers

Fuelled by a surge of Latinx, Black and Asian students enrolling in colleges and universities this fall as well as the return of ‘stop outs’ who had suspended their studies during the COVID-19 pandemic and immediately after, the number of undergraduate Americans in higher education grew for the first time since the pandemic caused enrolment to fall by 1.2 million students.

The 2.1% growth in enrolment is all the more striking given that, at 52% of the post-secondary demographic, the number of White students declined by almost 1%, for a cumulative decline of 5.7% since 2021.

Taken together, the four sectors – public and private four-year colleges, public two-year (junior) colleges and PABs (primarily associate degree-granting baccalaureate institutions, that is, junior colleges that grant BAs) – saw enrolment of undergraduate Latinx students increase by 4.2%, Blacks by 2.1% and Asians by 4%.

Increases among graduate students tracked undergraduates, with Latinx students growing by 3%, Blacks by 2.1% and Asian by 6%. The increase in the percent of international students was a healthy 6.5%, about a third of last fall’s figure, which was artificially high because it was the first year after COVID.

Male and female enrolment reversed last year’s losses, +2.2% compared with -0.5%, and +1.2% vs -1.9%, respectively.

“There’s some very good news overall,” Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), said in a Zoom meeting held following the release last week of the Stay Informed report, which uses data from 55% of America’s colleges and universities, representing 9.6 million students.

“These schools that have reported by the end of September had lost about 1% in enrolment last year at this time compared to [fall] 2021. These schools are now about 1% above the level of 2021. If we just focus on undergraduates, it’s about a 2.1% increase; that’s 160,000 students more than last year. And community colleges accounted for almost 60% of the total increase in undergraduate students this fall compared to last fall,” said Shapiro.

Freshmen enrolment

The strong rise in overall enrolment masks a disturbing fact: enrolment of first-year students for the class of 2026 declined by 3.6%.

At community colleges and PABs, freshmen enrolment was essentially flat, while at private for-profit four-year institutions, enrolment increased by 10.8%. However, since there are only 800,000 students enrolled in private for-profit institutions, this sector’s increase does not materially impact the entire sector.

By contrast, in the two largest subgroups in the sector, which together account for 23.6 million students, enrolment dropped significantly: -6.1% for public four-year colleges and -4% at private non-profit four-year colleges.

The number of 18- to 20-year-olds declined by 5.2%, reversing last year’s increase of 4.5%. Taken together, the two years have seen a 0.9% decrease in enrolment by what is traditionally the largest age cohort to enter college and university.

With the exception of Asians, who saw a 2% increase in freshmen, each of the racial sub-groups NSCRC tracks saw declines: 9.4% for Whites, 3.1% for Latinx, 2.9% for Blacks and 3.1% for Multiracial students.

A partial explanation for the decline in first years is the increase in the number of students who enrolled in undergraduate certificate programmes, which jumped 9.9%.

“It’s possible that we are starting to see some declines in the numbers of 18-year-olds, and possibly also the decline in the number of high school graduates over and above what was originally projected before the pandemic,” said Shapiro, referencing the ‘demographic cliff’ demographers have predicted since births dropped significantly following the 2008 financial crisis.

Family income

With a few exceptions, family income did not affect the decline in freshmen numbers. For public four-year colleges, the percent decline varied between 8.4% for the upper middle quintile and 7.2% for the lowest quintile.

The smallest decline in private four-year colleges, 3.1%, was registered by the bottom quintile (likely because members of this group who go to private colleges and universities is small, and receives large student aid grants. Among the other quintiles, the declines varied between 8.3% and 7%.

When looked at through what NSCRC calls ‘Institutional Selectivity’, the figures for freshmen enrolment are equally grim.

At ‘Highly Selective’ colleges and universities, enrolment fell for every quintile: 16.6% for the bottom, 10.9% for the lower middle, 8.5% and 7.7%, respectively for the next two quintiles and 4.6% at the highest quintile. The decline in freshmen enrolment amongst ‘Highly Competitive’ schools was similar. Even ‘Less Selective’ colleges and universities saw declines of between 5.5% and 2.7%.

When asked why the highly selective schools saw such a great decline, Shapiro answered: “This is really a reversal because in the past two years we’ve seen much better performance among the more selective institutions and more of the declines have been in the least selective institutions.

“So my guess is, particularly on the freshmen side, but also overall, the more selective institutions are probably returning more to a standard class size. Many of them had admitted many more freshmen in the last two years to try to make up for that first year of the pandemic.

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

Drivers of growth

As indicated, overall enrolment increased for two reasons: community colleges saw their enrolment grow by 4.4% and the ‘stop outs’ who left college during or after the COVID pandemic, returned in large numbers.

Freshmen enrolment in community colleges offering (two-year) associate bachelor’s degrees, which, in most cases, are accepted by universities as equivalent to the first two years of the four-year degree, grew by 4.2% for full-time students and 9.8% for part-time students for a total increase of 6.1%.

These increases boosted enrolment in public two-year colleges by 4.3%, with the largest increase, 10.5%, being registered by Latinx students. By contrast White students enrolled in these colleges dropped by 5.8%.

The total enrolment in PABs rose by 0.7%, with the largest increases being among Latinx and Asian students, 3.8% and 3%, respectively. White students declined 9.6%.

In this report, NSCRC did not separate out the ‘stop outs’. By placing freshmen enrolment percentages next to total enrolment percentages, it is possible to get an idea of the size of the group that returned to America’s colleges and universities.

While public four-year freshmen enrolment fell by more than 6%, total enrolment grew by 0.8%. Enrolment in private non-profit four-year colleges dropped by 4% while total enrolment grew by 1.4%. The freshmen class at community colleges dropped by 0.2% while total enrolment grew by 4.4%. The figures for PABs are 0.3% and 1.9%.

Increases across states

In many states this year’s increase in enrolment reversed (at least temporarily) the precipitous declines in enrolment dating back, in some cases, before COVID.

Last year, for example, New York State saw a drop of 3.7% in college and university students, while the state recorded an increase of 0.6%. Michigan, which last year lost 4.8% of its post-secondary student body, gained 0.9% this year. California, which had seen a 1% drop in the number of students in college and university last year, saw a jump of 4.3% this year.

Every region of the country recorded an increase in the number of its post-secondary students: 0.9% for the Midwest, 1.3% for the Northeast, 2.5% for the South, 2.7% for the West.

Increases were also recorded by every ‘Campus Setting’. The greatest increase of 5.8% was among suburban PABs; increases for city, suburban, and rural and town public two-year colleges averaged 4.4%. The smallest increases, between 0.4 and 0.9%, were recorded by public-four-year colleges in each ‘Campus Setting’.

The brightest spot: HBCUs

The brightest spot in the report concerned undergraduate enrolment at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

These colleges and universities, most of which are in the South with a few in Texas, the Midwest and Delaware, saw a year-on-year increase of 6.1%, which almost tripled last year’s growth.

Over the past two years undergraduate enrolment at the HBCUs has grown by 8.8%. Graduate enrolment has declined by a total of 7.1%, but since graduate students make up only about 20% of the HBCU enrolment the decline did not materially change HBCUs’ enrolment trajectory.

These strong figures in the number of students enrolling in HBCUs are all the more surprising given the strength of the American economy; on 30 October, the US Treasury reported that the US economy had grown by 4.9% in the third quarter, with new job creation running at 266,000 positions per month.

According to Dr Alí R Bustamante, deputy director of the Manhattan-based Roosevelt Institute’s Worker Power & Economic Security Program: “The employment-to-population ratio for all African Americans, and for African Americans aged 16 to 19, is the highest it's been in 20 years based on a six-month rolling average.

“A greater share of African Americans, including 16- to 19-year-olds, are employed today than in the past 20 years because of high wage growth and job security brought on by the fiscal stimulus policies of the Biden Administration. Data show that when job opportunities abound, many high school graduates will forgo, or at least defer, going to college.”

But, in fact, the enrolment figures at HBCUs, community colleges and PABs, indicate that African Americans (as well as other minorities) are enrolling in college and university.

Among the reasons why HBCUs are seeing such a large increase in freshmen is the positive press that these colleges and universities have been receiving over the past few years.

High profile donations, like that of Mackenzie Scott’s multi-million donation to HBCUs in 2019 and US$400 million donation in 2022 have raised the profile of HBCUs.

Further, as detailed in a 2021 study, HBCUs Transforming Generations: Social mobility outcomes for HBCU alumni, published by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) last December, compared with other colleges and universities, HBCUs were more than twice as successful in moving students from the lower to the middle class.

“What this means is that the HBCUs have been a gold standard in higher education for certain populations of students, supporting those students – 60% of whom are the first in their family to go to college – in persisting through their education and graduating in a way that is very difficult for them to achieve if they are in other education spaces.

“HBCUs are really a treasure. But because of the dynamics of how our country focuses on higher education, oftentimes HBCUs are left in the shadows,” said Julian Thompson, the UNCF’s director of strategy at the Institute for Capacity Building.

An additional reason for why African American students are turning to HBCUs is, likely, the chilly climate engendered by the policies pushed by Republican politicians in almost half of America’s 50 states. More than 20 states have passed legislation banning diversity, equity and inclusion offices.

A number have banned the teaching, not only of critical race theory, but also of any historical topic that is likely to cause students to feel uncomfortable – such as the history of slavery in America and the Jim Crow laws that structured segregation before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

A few months ago Florida rejected an Advanced Placement course focused on African American studies, used across the country, because Republican appointed officials held that it violated Florida’s laws on what could be taught about America’s racial history.

Celebrating growth

Alabama A&M (Huntsville, Alabama), is one of the HBCUs celebrating its 10% increase in enrolment, which made this year’s incoming class (2,002 students), the largest in the school’s 148-year history.

“Record student enrolment is a signal of the strength of Alabama A&M and what we have to offer students and families,” said vice-president of student affairs Braque Talley in a press release.

AAMU’s officials are aware that since the majority of the students in the large freshmen class are the first in their families to go to university, these students require special support. Accordingly, Talley also drew attention to the need to create more support and services for students.

“Students who persist to year two are far more likely to matriculate to graduation,” he said. “That’s why we are so focused on the first-year experience. This year, we have 80% of our first-year students living on campus. We’re keeping them engaged and continuing to bring about additional support because of the proven connection this has on retention and resilience,” he said.

Wilberforce University (WU) in Wilberforce (near Dayton), Ohio, the nation’s oldest private HBCU, is also celebrating its increase in enrolment. The 29% increase has, however, created a housing crisis, partially solved by placing students in off-campus apartments leased by the university.

To bring students back to the campus as soon as possible, WU is erecting prefabricated fenrol dorms, the first of which, housing 33 students, is slated to be finished next month and opened in January.

“These pre-made dorms are a great solution to our housing issue … Financially, for the most part, we are building them on our own,” said the college’s president, Vann R Newkirk, in a press release.