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5 charts breaking down fall 2021’s college enrollment trends

Early fall 2021 enrollment numbers delivered more disappointing news to higher education leaders this month. Undergraduate enrollment sank once again, this time by 3.2% from the year before, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  

To help make sense of a particularly turbulent time in higher ed, we put together several charts showing recent enrollment trends. They use the Clearinghouse’s preliminary enrollment data, which is based on 50.5% of institutions reporting their fall figures. We will post new versions of these charts as more data becomes available.

Undergraduate enrollment saw declines across the board

Year-over-year enrollment declines by sector

Taken together with the fall of 2020’s decrease, undergraduate enrollment has now dropped 6.5% over two years. Declines were particularly severe at four-year, for-profit schools and community colleges, which have seen the largest two-year enrollment decline out of any sector. 

“If this current rate of decline — this 6.5% — were to hold up, it would be the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years in the U.S.,” Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director, said during a call with reporters this month. 

Less-selective colleges saw the greatest enrollment declines

Fall 2021 enrollment declines at four-year colleges by selectivity

Undergraduate enrollment declines weren’t even across four-year colleges. They were concentrated at less-selective schools, which saw enrollment drop 4.7% this fall from the year before. Highly selective four-year institutions, meanwhile, saw an overall enrollment increase of 2.1%. 

First-year enrollment continued to decline overall

Year-over-year enrollment declines by sector

First-year enrollment continued to sink, even though this fall’s overall decline of 3.1% is only a fraction of last year’s decrease of 9.5%. Despite the year-over-year decline shrinking, first-year enrollment is still down 12.3% since 2019.

Losses were particularly severe at four-year, for-profit colleges, which saw a 25.2% decline in first-year students this fall. 

White, Black and Native American undergraduates had some of the largest declines

Year-over-year undergraduate enrollment changes by student group

White, Black and Native American undergraduates had the largest declines out of the racial and ethnic groups tracked, respectively dropping by 10.6%, 11.1% and 12.7% over the past two years. Latinx and Asian students saw less than half that rate of decline, falling by 5.1% and 5.5%, respectively, over the two-year period. 

International students also saw major declines, plummeting 21.2% since fall of 2019. 

Graduate enrollment rose across all college types except for-profits

Year-over-year enrollment changes by sector

Yet there were some bright spots. Graduate enrollment continued to climb during the pandemic, rising by 2.1% this fall from the year before. Overall, graduate enrollment has increased 5.3% over the past two years. 

However, four-year, for-profit colleges saw graduate enrollment plummet 16.6% in the fall of 2021, erasing a 4.2% enrollment bump the prior year. Shapiro cautioned that this sector’s figures are among the most likely to change as more enrollment data comes in this fall.


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