Undergraduate enrollment losses deepen during the spring: Clearinghouse

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • Undergraduate enrollment is down nearly 6% year over year this spring based on data from three-quarters of colleges that report to the National Student Clearinghouse.
  • Following trends from this past fall, graduate enrollment remained in positive territory, up 4.4% from last spring. The findings are based on the same institutions reporting at the same time in the given year and account for 12.6 million students.
  • The data shows other trends continuing, including that enrollment at mostly online schools is growing.

Dive Insight:


The undergraduate decrease is the steepest yet among those students during the pandemic, according to the Clearinghouse. Undergraduate enrollment was down 3.6% year over year in the fall, with more significant declines at community colleges. That trend appears to be carrying over into the spring, though the losses are slightly more significant so far.

Enrollment trends also vary by program type. The annual losses were less severe at the associate level in healthcare fields and psychology than in other programs. Undergraduate certificates in healthcare saw their enrollment rise slightly. However, STEM bachelor’s degrees overall posted a slight decline.

Primarily online institutions — where more than 90% of students were entirely online pre-pandemic — fared far better than the rest of the sector, increasing undergraduates and more significant gains among graduate students. The report includes 27 such schools.

Other patterns from earlier enrollment releases continued into the spring: Men saw more significant declines than women (the only two gender groups tracked). Native American students, in particular, experienced steep falls, down 13% from the previous year. And community colleges are absorbing a disproportionate share of the losses across institution types.

The data also shows continued international student attrition. Federal agencies recently lifted a pandemic-related ban on travel from certain countries for international students and extended their distance learning flexibilities.

As of Wednesday evening, more than 300 schools told the National Association for College Admission Counseling that they have open seats, housing, or financial aid. More than 700 schools were on the list as of May 1, 2020, compared to some 400 the year before — an indicator the pandemic was affecting enrollment uncertainty.

Colleges are optimistic about having students on campus this coming fall, but continued uptake of the vaccine and ongoing testing for the virus will be critical, experts have said.

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