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Higher Education enrollment continues to decline; admissions officers reveal concerns over early numbers

October 27, 2022
By: Conor Gowder

Higher education enrollment dropped 1.1% between fall 2021 and 2022, a slight reprieve from historic COVID-induced drop-offs, as revealed by new preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Since fall 2020, enrollment has decreased by a combined 3.2% for graduate and undergraduate enrollment, representing a drop of approximately 1.5 million students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between fall 2021 and 2022, undergraduate enrollment declined in 27 of the 42 states where sufficient data are available, with Alaska (-5.2%), Kansas (-4.6%), and Michigan (-4.6%) losing the most undergraduate students while New Hampshire (+6.8%), New Mexico (+4.3%), and South Carolina (+3.7%) gained the most.

Between fall 2020 and fall 2022, undergraduate enrollment fell by over 5% in 14 of the 42 states with sufficient data (Alaska, Arkansas, California, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin), with Alaska losing the most (-15%) followed by Missouri (-9%).

New Hampshire’s undergraduate enrollment rose the most with the state showing 12.6% increase over the two-year period, followed by South Carolina (+4.6%).

Graduate student enrollment is down an average of 1% over the last year (Fall 2021 to 2022) in 26 of the 37 states with sufficient data. Alaska once again saw the largest decrease of any state (-7.4%), while Maine (-6.6%) and Montana (-5.7%) experienced the next largest declines. Oklahoma (+2.5%) has the largest increase in graduate level enrollment, followed closely by Georgia and Rhode Island (both +2.4%).

On a positive note, graduate student enrollment did increase 1.6% between fall 2020 and 2022. This increase is spearheaded by Georgia (+10.1%), Oklahoma (+8%), and Rhode Island (+6.5%). However, states like Alaska (-15.5%) and Nebraska (-8.3%) still saw large decreases over the same timeframe.

Community colleges, which were the hardest hit during the pandemic, experienced less of a decline between Fall 2021 and 2022 (-0.4%); however, this was primarily driven by a 11.5% increase in dual-enrolled high school students.

Over the summer, college admissions officers were showing concern over enrollment numbers, according to an Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university admissions officers conducted online in June, July and August of 2022. Of the 271 responding admissions officers, only 36% reported that their institution met its enrollment goals by May 1, 2022, the traditional deadline when high school seniors must commit to a college. Of the institutions that didn't meet their goals by May 1, only 17% met their enrollment goal by June 1. Finally, of those who didn't hit their target enrollments by June 1, just 10% met their goal by July 1. This means approximately half of the sampled universities hit their enrollment goals by the start of July, a very similar month-to-month spread but slight overall increase from the 2021 report.

At the time of survey, only 26% of respondents had expected their institution’s undergraduate enrollment levels to be below that of the prior year. Of those anticipating a decrease, 43% expected a less than 5% decrease in enrollment, while 34% expected between a 5-10% decrease, 13% expected a 10-15% decrease, and 10% expected a 15%+ decrease.

Overall, admissions officers from private institutions were more likely than those from public institutions to expect lower undergraduate enrollment levels (30% and 19% respectively). The survey also found admission officers in the Midwest being more likely than their Southern counterparts to be at least moderately concerned (90% and 77% respectively) about enrollment levels.

enrollment, higher ed, community college, universities