The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College enrollment declines for third straight year since pandemic

Report finds undergraduate count is off about 7 percent since fall 2019

A person walks on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in September 2020. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
3 min

College and university enrollment has declined for the third straight year, according to a new national report, with the undergraduate count now about 7 percent lower than it was in fall 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic rocked higher education.

The report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, released Thursday, found that undergraduate enrollment has dipped 1.1 percent since last fall. That was smaller than the previous annual decline of 3.1 percent, recorded in fall 2021. But analysts said the trends remained worrisome and are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.

“I certainly wouldn’t call this a recovery,” said Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director. “We’re seeing smaller declines, but when you’re in a deep hole, the fact that you’re only digging a tiny bit further is not really good news.”

The enrollment trends for this fall are estimates based on partial and preliminary data from colleges and universities. There are no precise figures available yet for total head counts.

Shapiro said the initial data suggest that steep drops after the pandemic disrupted colleges globally in early 2020 have not been reversed. Many high school graduates in 2020 and 2021 who ordinarily would have gone to college did not. And they might never do so.

Colleges scramble to recruit students as nationwide enrollment plunges

Freshmen enrollment is down this fall about 1.5 percent.

“We don’t see a huge upsurge of first-year students, of freshmen, especially at the four-year institutions,” Shapiro said. Noting the “lost classes” of high school graduates who fell off the college track, Shapiro said: “There’s not a lot of evidence in these numbers that they’re coming back now.”

The sharpest undergraduate declines this fall, compared to a year ago, were at for-profit schools. The research center found those numbers down 2.5 percent. Undergraduate enrollment was down 1.6 percent at public four-year schools and 0.9 percent at private nonprofit colleges and universities.

At community colleges, enrollment was down 0.4 percent. That marked a slowdown in what had been precipitous declines for the public two-year schools. But they are still far from recovery to pre-pandemic operations.

Graduate enrollment, the report found, was down 1 percent compared to the previous fall.

Enrollment is sensitive to birthrates as well as migration patterns and economic factors. When the economy booms and jobs are plentiful, many young people will delay going to college. Several states in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions have had sharper enrollment declines than the national average. Across the country, most colleges and universities are worried that such declines will reduce revenue they need to keep pace with higher costs as inflation raises the price of goods and services.

The next inflation-driven worry: Rising college tuition

One potential positive sign for next year’s enrollment is emerging in the number of high school seniors who complete the federal financial aid application known as FAFSA. Data from the National College Attainment Network show that 4.3 percent of students in the high school class of 2023 had completed the FAFSA through Oct. 7. That was up 25 percent compared with the previous academic year.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.