Modest though it may be, there’s finally some good news on the college enrollment front. Enrollment at community colleges increased this spring by 2.1% over last spring, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s (NSCRC) new report, Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information.
Overall undergraduate enrollment remained steady, ticking up a slight .2%, after two straight years of steep pandemic-related declines. Total college enrollment, including undergraduates and graduates, remained unchanged from last spring.
These are the preliminary data through February 23, 2023, based on 8.5 million spring enrollments in institutions representing just over half (54%) of the Clearinghouse universe of institutions. The results are likely to change as more data come in for the spring, 2023 semester. They will be updated by NSCRC in May.
The encouraging trend at the community colleges was driven by a 12.8% increase in dual-enrollment students and a 13.5% increase in first-time freshmen. Those increases add to the smaller improvements (a 2.9% increase in dual-enrollees and a 10% increase in freshmen) that occurred in spring, 2022.
One other positive sign was that freshmen enrollment by students of all age groups increased at four-year colleges as well, although the relatively small number of students that enroll in the spring vs. the fall semester makes the significance of that finding uncertain.
“It’s encouraging to see this second straight year of growth in spring freshmen and dual-enrolled high school students,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “However, community colleges still face significant declines in adult learners, who have been opting out of college in larger numbers since the start of the pandemic.”
Sector and Program Differences
The only sector to see a decline in spring enrollment was at public, four-year colleges, where enrollment slipped .9%. Private, nonprofit four year colleges, private, for-profit institutions, and public two-year schools all reported increases, of .8%, 2.2%, and 2.1%, respectively.
Enrollment growth was greater in short-term programs. Enrollments in certificate programs increased at both the undergraduate (+5.5%) and graduate (+4.6%) levels. Associate degree-seeking students increased slightly (+0.3%), but bachelor’s seeking students declined overall by .6%, and master’s level enrollments were down 1.9%.
Undergraduate enrollment grew only for younger (20 years and under) students, while older age groups (21 and above) continued to trend downward, extending multi-year losses in adult enrollment.
Undergraduate men, whose enrollment took the biggest hit at the beginning of the pandemic, saw a slight gain in enrollment (0.7%); enrollment among women continued to decline (-0.9%).
Among undergraduate students, only Latinx students experienced enrollment gains this spring (+0.9%), while all other major race and ethnicity groups declined or remained stable. White students decreased 4.9%, Black students declined 1.6%, Asian students slipped a slight .4%, and Native American enrollments were off 1.5%.
Overall enrollment changes varied depending on the location of institutions. Institutions in the Northeast saw the largest declines (-2.4%), while those in the Midwest were down .6%. Institutions located in the West were up .6%, while those in the South increased .4%. Enrollment at multi-state institutions increased 4.7%.
While these numbers don’t yet indicate the substantial recovery that higher education officials have been hoping for, they do suggest that enrollments may have at least reached a plateau. Now all eyes will turn to the fall semester, when most first-time students enroll in college.
About the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center
The NSCRC is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. It collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations to gather accurate longitudinal data that can be used to guide educational policy decisions. NSCRC analyzes data from 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represented 97% of the nation’s postsecondary enrollment in Title IV degree-granting institutions in the U.S., as of 2020.