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Pre-Pandemic, Higher Ed Enrollment Decline Showed Signs of Slowing

The percent change in spring enrollment between 2016 and 2020

The percent change in spring enrollment between 2016 and 2020. Source: "Term Enrollment Estimates, Spring 2020" from the National Student Clearinghouse

According to the researchers who monitor college and university enrollment term-by-term, the continued enrollment decline has shown signs of slowing. Of course, that was pre-pandemic, as the latest enrollment report from the National Student Clearinghouse noted on its front page. Public two-year and four-year college enrollments dropped by 1.3 percent (164,000 students) from last spring, compared to the 1.9 percent drop reported last year. In the previous reporting, which reflected fall numbers, the decline was 2.1 percent.

The reporting done by the Clearinghouse represents about 97 percent of total enrollments for Title IV, degree-granting institutions in the United States. The organization typically issues two enrollment reports each year, one for the spring term and one for fall. The latest reporting reflects spring 2020 enrollments.

Graduate student enrollments, which had previously seen a slight increase, had "leveled off," the report noted, slicing off a tenth of a percent, following increases of 1.7 and 2 percent in previous years.

The largest decline (-2.3 percent) occurred in public two-year schools, followed by private-for-profits (-1.9 percent). However, for the for-profit schools, that was a small decrease compared to the previous spring enrollment decline, which saw a reduction of 16 percent.

Total spring 2020 enrollment across all types of institutions was 17,458,306 students. Bachelors-degree seekers made up 55 percent; associate-degree seekers represented 32 percent; and other graduate or professional credential students made up 18 percent. The rest were "other" undergraduate students.

Growth was greatest for students under the age of 18 pursuing dual enrollment education. For public two-year colleges, the increase for those students was 8.7 percent year-over-year; for private non-profits it was 4.2 percent; and at public four-years, it was 4.2 percent.

Women continue to pursue higher education in far greater numbers than men. More than 10.2 million women enrolled in college in spring 2020, compared to 7.2 million men.

Program growth was strongest for four-year schools in four instructional areas:

  • Communications Technologies/Technicians and Support Services, where enrollments grew by 6.9 percent;
  • Transportation and Materials Moving, which rose by 5.6 percent;
  • Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services, which increased by 4.7 percent; and
  • Psychology, which expanded by 4.1 percent.

The top losers were:

  • Theology and Religious Vocations, where enrollments shrank by 7.2 percent;
  • Construction Trades, which declined by 6.8 percent; and
  • Family and Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences, which dropped by 5.7 percent.

In two-year schools, science technologies, a consistent winner, saw the biggest bump, with 28 percent growth in enrollments; the next nearest increase was in psychology, which grew by 9.4 percent. The largest drop occurred in the physical sciences, where enrollments declined by 6.6 percent.

The Clearinghouse said it would publish a special report in June to show "within-term" changes to enrollments, which could be linked to COVID-19 campus closures and shifts to online learning.

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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