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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Updated Figures Show College Enrollments Falling Further Behind Last Year

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A newly updated report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) shows that postsecondary enrollment has now fallen 2.6% below last year’s level. That decline represents a slight worsening of the initial enrollment report the Center released on October 26, which revealed that overall college enrollment for the fall semester was down by 2.3% across the nation.

Undergraduate enrollment has dropped 3.5% so far this fall, resulting in a total two-year decline of 7.8% since 2019. However, graduate enrollment continues to be relatively strong, growing 2.1% this fall, maintaining the upward trend of a 2.7% increase reported last fall.

Last month’s NSCRC figures came from 50.5% of Clearinghouse institutions (representing 8.4 million students), that had reported data as of September 23. The figures released today reflect a combined 13.7 million undergraduate and graduate students, from 74% of more than 3,600 Title IV degree-granting institutions reporting to the Clearinghouse as of October 21, 2021. 

Sector Differences

Undergraduate enrollment declined across all higher education sectors this fall.

  • Enrollment at private, nonprofit four-year institutions suffered only a small decrease of -0.6%.
  • Public four-year institutions saw a decline of 2.5% vs. a 1.6% loss last fall.
  • Private, for-profit, four-year institutions experienced a drop of 8.5%, more than three times as large as the 2.6% decline they sustained last fall.
  • Community college enrollment continued to decline, albeit at a slower rate (-6.0% vs. -9.4% last fall). Community college enrollment is now down a total of 14.8% since 2019. 
  • Primarily online institutions, where more than 90% of students had enrolled exclusively online prior to the pandemic, saw steep decreases in both undergraduate (-8.9%) and graduate enrollments (-8.2%, respectively).

Higher education leaders hoping that the enrollment numbers might trend upwards as the semester progressed were left disappointed. “Today’s data are largely consistent with last month’s report,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “And with more schools counted, the continued downward trends raise even more troubling concerns for students and institutions struggling to recover from the first pandemic year.”

Selective Colleges See an Increase

Within the four-year institutional sector, the one bright spot was at colleges using highly selective admissions. Those schools enrolled 3.1% more undergraduates this fall compared to last year. Every other category of institution, defined by the use of less selective admissions, saw enrollment declines at both public and private, nonprofit institutions. In fact, the less selective the institution, the larger the average enrollment decline.

State Differences

Among 46 states for which sufficient data were available for the new report, 41 saw decreases in undergraduate enrollment compared to last fall. The states with the steepest declines were Mississippi (-9.2%), Indiana (-7.1%), New Mexico (-6.8%), and California (-6.5%), each of which also had double-digit decreases since 2019.

By contrast, graduate enrollment is up in 40 states, with Maine, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Florida all experiencing growth over 6% this fall. 

Student Demographics

Male undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.4%, compared to a 4.1% decline among females. Overall undergraduate enrollments saw decreases across all racial and ethnic groups.

  • Native American students saw the steepest drop of 5.5%.
  • Enrollment of white undergraduates declined by 5.2%, Black students decreased 5.1%, and Latinx and Asian students fell 2.8% and 2.2% respectively.
  • International student enrollment was down 3.1% at the undergraduate level, but it was up 12.7% at the graduate level.


The five most popular majors for bachelor’s degree-seeking students (business, health, liberal arts, engineering, biological sciences and biomedical sciences) all saw declining enrollments. Psychology and computer and information sciences were two large undergraduate majors that saw increases (2.5% for the former and 3.3%, for the latter).

At the graduate level, both the MBA and education master’s programs, two areas that had increased their enrollments last year saw declines this fall (-1.4% and -3.9%, respectively). Growth in graduate programs in the health fields slowed (+0.7% this year vs. +5.3% last fall). Computer and information sciences (up 19.9%), engineering (+9.7%), and biological and biomedical sciences (+9.5%) all experienced large growth this fall. 


The NSCRC is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. It collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations to gather accurate longitudinal data that can be used to guide educational policy decisions.

NSCRC analyzes data from 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97% of the nation’s postsecondary enrollment in Title IV degree-granting institutions in the U.S., as of 2018.

The next 2021 Current Term Enrollment Estimate is scheduled to be released by NSCRC around Wednesday, Dec. 15.

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