After Years of Decline, Undergraduate Enrollment Shows ‘Signs of Recovery’

Click to enlarge. Source:  National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported yesterday that undergraduate enrollment is stabilizing according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which provided a final tally on enrollment for the fall of 2022. It marks a slowdown of a longer term trend that had been in effect for years, and which had worsened during the pandemic.

Undergraduate enrollment in the fall of 2022 fell only 0.6 percent, or by 94,000 students, from a year ago. Total enrollment in the fall of 2022 was essentially flat as well — down by 0.7 percent from a year earlier.

But the odds of a bounce-back to pre-pandemic levels are still remote. Since the pandemic began, undergraduate and total enrollment have each dropped by more than a million students.

Here are three takeaways from the data:

A bright spot during years of somber enrollment news has faded.

During the early years of the pandemic, graduate enrollment was on the rise. In the fall of 2020, it was up 3 percent from the year before, followed by 2.4 percent in the fall of 2021.

But “we’re now seeing the end of that growth trend,” said Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, in a call with reporters. In 2022, graduate attendance fell 1.2 percent across all four-year sectors — public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit.

More would-be freshmen opted for college.

According to the data, freshman enrollment was up 4.3 percent, or 97,000 students. The increase is a reversal of the 10.2-percent slide in enrollment for first-time students in the fall of 2020.

Freshman enrollment rose in all sectors, including a 6.1-percent increase from a year ago at community colleges, where the steepest enrollment declines had surfaced during the pandemic.

“It’s very encouraging to start seeing signs of recovery here,” although freshman attendance still has a “long way to go” to return to 2019 levels, Shapiro said.

Some of the top majors have lost their shine.

Of the top-five majors at four-year colleges, only one of them, business management, grew in the fall of 2022. Business management was up 1.2 percent from the year before, after multiple years of decline. The other four majors — health professions, liberal arts and sciences, biological and biomedical sciences, and engineering — all declined in the fall of 2022.

Some of the other majors that saw gains: computer science at 10.7 percent; natural resources and conservation at 3 percent; visual and performing arts at 1.7 percent; agriculture at 1.4 percent; and psychology at 1.1 percent.

A small but good development for higher education!


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