Oct 26, 2023 - Economy

Undergraduate enrollment increases after years of decline

Students walk on a college campus outdoors

Students walk around campus at East Los Angeles College in September 2022. Photo: Dania Maxwell/Getty Images

Undergraduate enrollment grew this fall for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite a decline in freshmen enrollment, according to preliminary data released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Why it matters: College enrollment had been trending downward prior to the pandemic and dropped further since 2020 — one of several facets of higher education impacted by COVID-19.

  • "This is good news for community colleges and for the growing numbers of continuing and returning students who had lost momentum from the start of the pandemic," Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the center, said in a statement.
  • The data covers nearly 10 million students as of the end of September. The final report, expected in January, may see slightly different results, per Shapiro.

Details: Undergraduate enrollment overall increased 2.1% compared to 2022 and is 1.2% above 2021.

  • Community colleges accounted for 59% of the increase in undergraduates.
  • Black, Latino and Asian students accounted for most undergrad and graduate growth. Enrollment of white students declined at both levels, especially among freshmen.
  • Historically Black colleges and universities' growth, at +6.1%, outpaced overall undergraduate enrollment growth, +2.1%.
  • Dual enrolled high school student enrollment is up 9% since last year and 20% since 2021. They account for about 40% of the increases in community college.

Freshman enrollment declined by 3.6%, reversing gains from last fall.

  • "It's hard to know what's really driving this divergence between freshmen and continuing students, but it's certainly counterintuitive," Shapiro said in a media briefing on Wednesday.
  • The main freshmen declines were in bachelor's programs at public and private four-year colleges.
  • But freshmen enrollment at institutions for associate degrees stabilized from previous years.
  • Students this fall, as in previous years, gravitated toward shorter programs such as undergrad certificates and associate degrees, rather than bachelor's.

Zoom in: Among undergrad students of traditional ages, enrollment increased across income levels.

  • Enrollment of students from lower income areas increased 3.6% this year, compared to 1.4% for students from higher income areas.
  • Women's enrollment was slower than men's.

Meanwhile, graduate certificate programs, which had already been experiencing rising enrollment unlike undergrad, continued to increase.

  • Enrollment was up 5.7% this year and 9.9% since 2021.

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