Undergraduate Enrollment Is Finally Growing

But student choices are increasingly different in the post-pandemic college landscape.

It’s no secret that enrollment in higher education has been inconsistent over the past few years, due in part to the Covid pandemic. The pandemic upturned the college experience in many ways, and data from the years following it reveal distinct changes in which programs students favor—specifically four-year undergraduate programs versus community-college and certificate programs.

A recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) found that the post-pandemic decline in undergraduate enrollment finally ceased as of fall 2023, a semester that saw 2.1-percent enrollment growth over 2022. By contrast, spring 2023 numbers (which revealed a 0.2-percent decline in enrollment from 2022) found overall undergraduate enrollment still well below pre-Covid levels. As a previous report made clear, spring 2023 enrollment was still down “1.09 million students overall and about 1.16 million undergraduates alone, compared to spring 2020.”

While total undergraduate enrollment saw an increase this fall, freshman enrollment saw a major decline (of 3.6 percent), which ultimately reversed the freshman-enrollment gains (+4.6 percent) of fall 2022. Freshman enrollment now sits “just 0.8 percent above fall 2021 enrollment.”

Since the pandemic, college enrollment has been unsteady at best.Though the narrative provided by these data can be tricky to follow, one clear story does emerge. Since the pandemic, college enrollment has been unsteady, with enrollment struggles impacting all sectors of higher education: public and private four-year institutions, undergrad and graduate programs, and even community colleges and certificate programs.

However, data are now pointing to larger enrollment increases for institutions that award shorter-term credentials. Fall 2023 saw major enrollment growth for undergraduate certificate programs (a 9.9-percent increase from 2022), associate’s-degree programs (a 3.6-percent increase), and graduate certificate programs (a 5.7-percent increase). Enrollment growth for traditional bachelor’s programs, meanwhile, was a far more modest 0.9 percent.

Relatedly, community-college enrollment saw a 4.4-percent increase this fall, accounting for 58.9 percent of the total undergraduate increase.

So why are students forgoing standard four-year degrees and instead opting for short-term programs or certificates? According to Doug Shapiro, the NSCRC’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.” As one often hears from current and prospective students these days, the cost of higher education is one of the main reasons students are staying away from colleges and universities to a greater extent.

Yet, as some students have come to realize, attending community college is one of the best ways to avoid the exorbitant costs of a degree. This may account for the large enrollment growth community colleges have seen this fall.

Nevertheless, this enrollment bump shows only part of the picture. According to MyFutureNC, North Carolina community colleges had a 48-percent completion rate as of 2022. That means that fewer than half of students at two-year public institutions complete a degree or credential program within six years. North Carolina barely exceeds the national community-college completion rate of 43 percent. So while enrollment has grown this year, it’s unlikely that most of those new students will remain through graduation.

Regardless, it is promising to see students considering options outside of the standard four-year degree. Being open to other avenues for education and being aware of the financial impacts of one’s degree choice is a positive trait in postsecondary learners. Furthermore, as Shapiro observed, “Students are increasingly looking towards programs and majors that [provide] a direct link to the workforce.” Community-college programs often fit that bill.

College-enrollment numbers provide many points of interest and, especially this fall, are revealing that students are no longer exclusively interested in the traditional route. Many are considering instead the impacts their degrees will have on their wallets and their future careers.

Enrollment numbers are slowly (yet not always steadily) recovering from the past few years of upheaval. It will be interesting to see if short-term programs will continue to grow in popularity or if the standard four-year route will make a continued and greater recovery.

Ashlynn Warta is the state reporter for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.