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Dive Brief:

  • Undergraduate enrollment in spring 2023 slipped just 0.2% from the previous year, representing a loss of some 25,000 students, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 
  • While this is an improvement over the 3.9% decline the previous spring, undergraduate enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
  • Community colleges saw a 0.5% uptick in enrollment, of roughly 22,000 students. The growth, which comes after significant declines in the last two years, stemmed from younger enrollees, such as those in dual-enrollment high school programs.

Dive Insight:

Across higher education, enrollment in spring 2023 dropped by 0.5% year over year, according to the report. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center categorizes the relatively small loss as a sign of the sector stabilizing. 

In spring 2022, higher ed enrollment dropped 3.1% from the previous year and spring 2021 had seen a 2.4% decline.

Graduate enrollment losses helped fuel this spring’s decrease, erasing some of the gains they had made during the pandemic. Enrollment in those programs declined 2.2%, or about 68,000 students. A vast majority of the losses, about 57,000 students, came from master’s programs. 

Even with the damage slowing overall, sector-wide enrollment is still significantly below pre-COVID levels, down about 1.1 million students from spring 2020. The undergraduate sector alone lost nearly 1.2 million students since the pandemic began, and graduate enrollment is up by just over 76,000 students.

But COVID isn’t keeping students away from classrooms these days, according to Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director.

“Students seem to be more concerned about the costs of college — particularly four-year colleges — and concerned about the debt that might be required to pay for that,” he said on a call with reporters Tuesday.

Undergraduate enrollment at four-year public colleges fell 0.5%, while four-year private institutions lost 0.2%. That’s a respective decline of about 28,500 and 5,000 students.

A small bump in community college enrollment helped balance undergraduate enrollment, according to the report. The 0.5% increase in community college’s spring 2023 enrollment represents a huge improvement to the significant losses the sector faced in recent years. In spring 2022, public two-year colleges lost 8.2% of their student bodies, and spring 2021 saw a decline of 10.1%.

Community colleges’ boost this spring came from students 24 and younger. These institutions saw an 8% increase in dual-enrollment students — high schoolers who concurrently take college courses — representing a gain of 49,000 students. The sector also saw a 1.1% increase in traditional-aged college students, those ages 18 to 24.

Among undergraduates, students likely are seeking out quicker credentials in fields that could offer a straightforward path to a job, Shapiro said.

“Students are increasingly looking towards programs and majors that they can easily see a direct link to to the workforce,” he said.

 Enrollment in sub-baccalaureate credentials rose 4.8%, or by 104,000 students. Associate degrees saw a 0.4% enrollment loss, or 15,000 students. Meanwhile, bachelor’s degree program enrollment fell 1.4%, or 114,000 students.