These Were Last Fall’s Winners and Losers in Undergraduate Enrollment

A steady stream of surveys last year revealed drops in undergraduate enrollment, by 3.6 percent in the fall and 4.9 percent in the spring. Beneath those top-line numbers, many questions remained unanswered: How did different states, regions, and locales fare? Which institutions, specifically, experienced gains and losses?

The Chronicle used preliminary federal data released last month to gauge how enrollment varied last fall and whether geography was a factor in how colleges performed. We analyzed fall 2020 enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics for over 3,000 institutions across regions and sectors.

Fewer than a third of those institutions saw undergraduate enrollment grow from 2019. The biggest growth was among for-profit colleges. Of the 124 institutions whose undergraduate enrollment grew by more than a third, seven out of 10 were for-profit colleges — though they also account for just 15 percent of the total group analyzed.

Suburbs in a region defined as the Rocky Mountains (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming) saw growth of over 4 percent from the fall of 2019, or an increase of over 5,000 full-time undergraduates. Most of that growth was attributable to Western Governors University, the nonprofit online mega-university.

Our analysis included enrollment numbers for undergraduates and for first-year, first-time, degree-seeking freshmen. Most of the charts below focus on full-time undergraduate enrollment.

Here’s a closer look at how location factored into fall 2020 enrollment.

Four States Saw Gains

Arizona, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Utah were the only states to see increases in undergraduate enrollment from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020.

Drops Across Towns, Cities, and Rural Areas

Every locale experienced declines from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020. Rural areas had the steepest drops.

Rocky Mountains, Southwest Came Out Slightly Ahead

Colleges in the West — California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — saw the sharpest enrollment declines, dropping by nearly 100,000 students altogether.

Explore Biggest Gains and Losses Among Colleges, by State

Enrollment includes first-time, full-time freshmen.

Note: Only degree-granting colleges eligible to participate in Title IV federal financial-aid programs, with at least 100 first-year students enrolled in 2020 and within the United States, are included in the rankings. The enrollment figures represent first-time, full-time, degree-seeking undergraduates.

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