Did You Know? Undergraduate Enrollment Still on the Decline

Despite many universities going back to in-person teaching this fall, undergraduate enrollment is still on the decline. Back in Fall 2020, in the midst of lockdowns and virtual classes, undergraduate enrollment had dropped by 4.5 percent—according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. 

In Fall 2021, national undergraduate enrollment decreased by 3.5 percent. For instance, North Carolina reflected the national enrollment decline with a 2.5 percent drop, and most states followed suit, except for six. Virginia had no change, and Idaho, South Dakota, Louisiana, Vermont, Massachusetts, South Carolina had an increase in undergraduate enrollment (2 states did not report data). 

The National Student Clearinghouse report notes undergraduate enrollment changes by sector. The private for-profit four-year sector had an 8.5 percent drop in enrollment in Fall 2021—the largest drop of all sectors. All other sectors also had a decline in enrollment, with the smallest drop at 0.6 percent from private nonprofit four-year institutions. 

Freshman enrollment changes by sector were also reported, and this data highlights where a big portion of the decrease in enrollment came from. Freshman enrollment rates at private for-profit four-year universities dropped by 8.1 percent from 2020 to 2021 and the only increase in enrollment was in private nonprofit four-year colleges by 2.5 percent.

Freshman enrollment changes by sector and age showed an interesting reversal from the changes in Fall 2020 to the changes in Fall 2021. In Fall 2020, the freshman enrollment at public four-year colleges for ages 21 to 24 decreased by 38.7 percent. A complete flip happened in Fall 2021 with an increase in enrollment by 39.1 percent in the same sector and age group. This flip happens again in private nonprofit four-year institutions for the same age group (21 to 24): the drop in enrollment was 31.7 percent in Fall 2020, but enrollment increased by 35 percent in Fall 2021. Although freshman enrollment drastically increased for 21 to 24-year-olds as well as for older students (25+), the overall enrollment decreased for freshmen of all sectors and ages by 5.3 percent in Fall 2021.

The data was also broken down by total enrollment based on selectivity levels of institutions. The report shows that as selectivity levels decreased, regardless of sector, the enrollment rate also decreased:

  • “Highly Selective” universities increased in enrollment by 3.1 percent
  • “Very Competitive” universities’ enrollment decreased by 0.7 percent
  • “Competitive” universities’ enrollment decreased by 3.6 percent and 
  • “Less Selective” universities’ enrollment decreased by 4.6 percent.

When both sector and selectivity are taken into account:

  • “Highly Selective” private nonprofit institutions had the largest increase in enrollment by 5.2 percent.
  • While “Less Selective” public institutions had the largest decrease in enrollment by 4.9 percent. 

On a different note, graduate enrollment increased overall by 2.1 percent for Fall 2021, which is a smaller increase than the 2.7 percent increase in Fall 2020. In Fall 2020, none of the sectors had a drop in enrollment, but in Fall 2021, enrollment in the private for-profit four-year sector dropped by 9.5 percent—which likely explains the smaller increase in enrollment.

Natalia Mayorga is a psychology student at UNC-Chapel Hill and a Martin Center intern.