(second of two posts; here’s the first one)
The enrollment decline in American colleges and universities continued this fall semester, according to just-released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. This is very important for higher education in this nation.
The big picture: student numbers declined in nearly every metric, continuing a nearly decade-long fall. Only elite universities and graduate programs enjoyed actual growth. Overall, undergraduate numbers dropped by 3.2%. Graduate enrollment rose again, by 2.1%, albeit within a much smaller group than undergrads. To sum up, the Center’s headline for this report is “Undergraduate Enrollment Still Falling.”
Let’s dive into the data by category.
Demographics: by gender, male and female enrollment both declined at about equal rates in fall 2021, compared to last year. By race, the largest declines were among white, black, and native American populations, more so than Asian and Hispanic groups. By age, nearly all demographics declined, especially people 25-29 years old, except for the under 17 population.
International students dropped by 8.2%.
Institutional types: community colleges continued to get hit hard, dropping by 5.6%. Private four-year schools were clobbered, falling 12.7%. Public baccalaureate institutions declined by 2.3%. Private four-year undergraduate populations shrunk the least, only by 0.7%.
In terms of reputation, the small group of the most selective institutions actually grew, while enrollment declined for everyone else:
Online institutions actually declined by 5.4% (undergrad) and 13.6% (grad students), which is a reversal of recent years.
Geography: every American region lost students, although the west experienced a somewhat steeper downward turn. “While the Midwest (-3.3%), Northeast (-2.8%), and the South (-2.6%) either maintained or experienced smaller declines in undergraduate enrollment, the West (4.4%) saw larger drops this fall.”
Majors and academic programs: undergraduates fled the liberal arts, humanities, and general studies. Weirdly, health professions also declined, even during a pandemic:
Graduate enrollment showed IT running away with the game, followed distantly by public administration. Education declined:
What can we take away from this report?
- Community colleges and for-profits were hit the hardest. Those sectors, which compete for similar students, continue a historical decline.
- While new American COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths decline, one explanation for the depression in college and university enrollment may be the pandemic – i.e., some would-be students fearing infections or substandard education for on campus activity, while others anticipate poorer experiences online.
- There’s a Matthew Effect at play when it comes to selectivity. Watch to see how this shapes media and academic responses, with attention paid to Harvard at al, and both faculty and staff from the most selective crowing about their growth. In the medium and long term, will we see social-economic status become more strongly identified with college credentials, as the marginalized and poor drop away?
- The decline in health care as a major surprises me, and checks my “COVID Curriculum” model. During a video meeting Center staff suggest this is a bounce back from last year, which saw higher health care enrollment. It may also be students anticipating the pandemic’s end and a commensurate drop in hiring, or being worried about what often look like horrible job conditions.
- I first wrote about peak higher education nearly a decade ago. So far that scenario holds for the sector as a whole.
- If Americans still think we want to expand access to higher education, we are failing deeply and badly. Community colleges, which serve more marginalized people than others, have been suffering for years now. Are we looking at a cultural shift away from “college for all”? Have we reached a turning point in our attitudes towards higher education?