Higher Ed’s Enrollment Crash Has Been Underway for Years

The news about college enrollment has been persistently bleak since the pandemic began, even as colleges have resumed in-person operations and the effects of the pandemic — thanks to widely available vaccines — have begun to wane.

But a recent report clarifies something important about the downturn, which has become one of the most widely discussed trends in higher education during the past two years: Undergraduate enrollment was already on the decline well before the pandemic.

Data from the “Report on the Condition of Education 2022,” produced by the National Center for Education Statistics, show that the slide in undergraduate enrollment began in 2011. By the fall of 2019 — before the pandemic had begun — the number of undergraduates had shrunk by more than 1.5 million students.

The undergraduate-enrollment slump includes a slow exodus of male students from higher education in the decade before the pandemic. In 2009 there were 7.6 million male undergraduates, a number that had decreased by roughly 5 percent by 2019. That decline was intensified by the pandemic; data from the fall of 2020 show a 7-percent drop in male undergraduates from the year before. The number of women has also declined since 2009, but starting from a much higher base than the men.

Although two-year institutions have borne the brunt of pandemic-era enrollment drops, data in the report detail the sector’s shedding of students in years prior. From 2011 to 2019 — a span that included an economic rebound from the Great Recession — enrollment at two-year colleges fell by 26 percent. In the fall of 2020, two-year college enrollment plummeted 12 percent from the year before.

The report, which summarizes education data from pre-kindergarten through postsecondary years, is the center’s first to include the impact of the pandemic.

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