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Higher Ed Enrollment Decline Continues; For-Profit Shrinkage Slowing

estimated national enrollment by institutional type from 2017 through 2019

The estimated national enrollment by institutional type from 2017 through 2019. Source: "Current Term Enrollment Estimate" from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Four-year for-profit colleges took the brunt of the continued decline in higher education enrollments. Between fall 2018 and fall 2019 enrollment dropped by 2.1 percent for those institutions, representing 15,711 fewer students year-over-year. However, that was just a fraction of the shrinkage that same type of school experienced between fall 2017 and fall 2018, when the decrease was a whopping 15.1 percent.

According to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the "Current Term Enrollment Estimate," which reports enrollment information twice a year (in December and May), overall postsecondary enrollment is down — yet again — by 1.3 percent from fall 2018.

The second largest drop was felt by public two-year and four-year schools (-1.4 percent and -1.2 percent, in turn), losing 77,092 and 97,426 students, respectively. Four-year nonprofits shrank by 0.6 percent over that same period, representing the loss of 22,027.

Also, for the first time, according to the Research Center, the "unduplicated count" fell below 18 million for fall enrollment, which totaled 17.965 million students.

The state with the biggest drop was Florida, where 52,328 fewer students enrolled. No other state came close. New York lost 1.8 percent, or 19,386 students, and California lost 0.8 percent, or 19,272 students.

Fifteen states saw increases in enrollment, led by Utah, with growth of 4.9 percent from fall 2018 to fall 2019 (a jump of 16,757 more students). No other states came close to that kind of increase. New Hampshire was second, with a change of 3.4 percent year-over-year, representing the addition of 5,183 students.

"With every institutional sector experiencing enrollment declines this fall, the higher education industry has now shed more than 2 million students since its peak in 2011 and the unduplicated count has fallen below 18 million for the first time," said Doug Shapiro, executive research director for the Center, in a statement. He noted that "most of the pain" hit schools in the Midwest and Northeast, while some states in the South and West experienced "modest growth."

Enrollment by major has evolved. While the category of "liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities" lost 84,519 students (7.1 percent) between fall 2018 and fall 2019, the greatest gain by sheer numbers was — yet again — computer and information sciences and support services, which drew 20,369 more students than in the previous fall semester (for a 4.5 percent increase). That was followed by psychology, which grew 3.8 percent and added an additional 16,865 students.

In other findings, across all institutions, about 159,000 fewer men and almost 84,000 fewer women were enrolled in fall 2019 compared to fall 2018.

Also, as reflected in recent reporting from the Center, the age of enrolling students is getting younger. Over the last four years, the average age of full-time, undergraduate students dropped from 22.3 to 21.8 years old.

The complete report and spreadsheet with data is openly available on the NSC Research Center website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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