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Useful Stats: Undergraduate enrollment below pre-pandemic levels in 43 states, grad enrollment up in 33 states

February 22, 2024
By: Conor Gowder

Total postsecondary enrollment is down 5% from fall 2019 to fall 2023 due to a 6% drop in undergraduate students. While undergraduates are down, graduate students have surpassed pre-pandemic enrollment numbers by 4%. Enrollments in undergraduate and graduate certificates are up significantly from pre-pandemic values (16% and 21%), while enrollment in associate degrees are down more than any other undergraduate credential (-14%). Continue reading for a national and state-level analysis of the recently released fall 2023 enrollment estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (Clearinghouse).

Note that fall 2023 data are estimates and may change. All data and methodological notes can be found on Clearinghouse’s website. Only total enrollment numbers are available for Wyoming, while all other states have undergraduate and graduate breakdowns. See Clearinghouse’s methodological notes for more data limitations.


National enrollment trends

At the onset of the pandemic, from fall 2019-2020, postsecondary enrollment dropped by 2.3%, followed by an additional 2.5% drop the following year (2020-2021). Undergraduate enrollment fell between both periods by 3.3% and 3.4%, respectively, while graduate enrollment increased by 2.9% and 2.1%.

Over the five years from fall 2019-2023, undergraduate enrollment was down by 6%—with fall 2023 being the first positive year since the pandemic (+176,000 or 1.2%)—while graduate enrollment was up 5%.

While at first, this trend might seem out of the ordinary, it is a not-so-unexpected trend; periods of recession, like that brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, generally increase graduate school enrollment, as those who lost their jobs tend to take advantage of the harsher recessionary labor markets to upskill with a graduate degree or certification.

Clearinghouse publishes data on five graduate credential types, of which enrollment in four (master’s, first professional, doctoral, and graduate certificate) increased from fall 2019-2020 and 2020-2021.

The largest increases were in graduate certificates, which have sustained strong growth ever since, averaging approximately +5% each year and increasing by 21% (+15,600) from 2019-2023. Each year between 2019 and 2022, graduate certificates had the largest increases at private-for-profit 4-year schools, averaging +11% per annum, while from 2022-2023, this trend shifted to public 4-year schools while private-for-profit 4-year schools decreased for the first time since before the pandemic.

Undergraduate certificates followed a somewhat similar trend, increasing from Fall 2020-2021 (+10%), 2021-2022 (+7%), and 2022-2023 (+2%), for a total increase of 16% (+137,700) over the 5 years from 2019-2023.

Across all other undergraduate credential types for which data is collected by Clearinghouse (bachelor’s, associate, and other undergraduate credentials), enrollment remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Enrollment is generally shifting more towards short-term certificate programs relative to associate degrees, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

Associate degrees saw by far the largest decrease in enrollment across all undergraduate credential types, down 14% or 732,300, since 2019. The largest decline is, not unexpectedly, found in public 2-year institutions (-16% or -643,900), followed by public PAB (planning accreditation board) institutions (-9% or -68,300) and private nonprofit 4-year schools (-11% or -10,300). However, private for-profit and public 4-year schools have increased their associate degree enrollments by 31% (22,400) and 5% (5,500) respectively.

All breakdowns of associate degrees except private nonprofit 4-year schools increased from fall 2022-2023.

On the other hand, undergraduates, despite their first positive year since the onset of the pandemic, remain 3% (-289,200) below pre-pandemic levels.

Figure 1 below shows the annual trends in undergraduate and graduate enrollment by credential type from 2019-2023.

Figure 1: Undergraduate and graduate enrollment trends by credential type, 2019-2023


State enrollment trends

While total enrollment nationally has dropped 5% from fall 2019-2023, with eight states having increased enrollment, Texas and Washington, D.C. having stayed approximately the same, and the remaining 41 states having decreased.

Utah had the highest uptick in enrollment over pre-pandemic values at +7%, followed by Arizona at +4%, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia at +3% each, and Georgia, Idaho, and Maine at +2% each.

Of the states below pre-pandemic enrollments, 14 were within 5%, an additional 19 were within 10%, and the remainder were over 10% below their state’s respective pre-pandemic values. For more detail on the changes within each state, refer to Figure 2.

Figure 2: Total, undergraduate, and graduate 5-year percentage change in fall enrollment


Trends in undergraduate enrollment mirror the overall trends fairly well, as undergraduates make up around 83% of postsecondary enrollment. Six states, plus Washington, D.C., have higher undergraduate enrollments than in 2019, led by Utah (+7%) and South Carolina (+3%). The remaining 43 states are below their pre-pandemic values, with 13 by over 10%. As a reminder, Wyoming does not have available data.

Graduate enrollment, however, appears very positive. The majority of states (33) have increased enrollments since the onset of the pandemic, with 15 by over 10%. Virginia and Indiana had the largest increases at +21% and +20%, respectively.


Consequences of postsecondary enrollment declines

Higher education institutions exist to teach students the skills and knowledge needed to contribute to the economy. While it is possible to thrive without a postsecondary education, many who lack credentials may find it difficult to obtain a good job, worsening divisions across race, ethnicity, and a myriad of other factors.

UCLA economist Adriana Lleras-Muney told the Washington Post that with fewer people going to college, society will be “less economically successful;” it will be harder to find people to fill jobs and “harder for innovation to occur.”

Fewer college graduates may worsen labor shortages across various industries, according to Fortune. The U.S. labor force has already shown itself lacking the workforce it needs, with past SSTI Useful Stats analyzing Bureau of Labor Statistics data to find increased job openings, but nearly stagnant hires. These trends can mean many things. Job openings do not necessarily come with attractive pay or benefits, and thus lack the attractiveness to the target population, or it may be a sign that not enough unemployed people are equipped with the skills needed to fill these vacant positions.

With Clearinghouse’s data showing a tentative shift away from associate’s degrees and towards certificates, and thus the potential to learn skills at a lower upfront cost to students, there may be more opportunities to upskill without the need for a traditional degree. Companies are already starting to respond to this trend; in 2024, nearly half of employers are planning to drop college degree requirements to increase diversity and job candidate numbers, reveals a 2023 survey by Intelligent.

useful stats, trends, enrollment, higher ed