College enrollment falls for third straight year

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Students pass through Sather Gate on the University of California, Berkeley campus in Berkeley, California, US, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022.

Students walk at the University of California, Berkeley on Aug. 30. Photo: David Odisho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

College enrollment has declined for the third school year in a row, but the drop may be cooling after reaching historic levels during the pandemic, per a report out Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse.

Why it matters: With each passing school year of declining enrollment, “a path back to pre-pandemic enrollment levels is growing further out of reach,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the nonprofit research center, warned.

  • “After two straight years of historically large losses, it is particularly troubling that numbers are still falling, especially among freshmen,” Shapiro said in a release.

Driving the news: Total undergraduate and graduate enrollment combined declined 1.1% between fall of 2021 and 2022, leading to a total two-year decline of 3.2% since 2020, per the nonprofit.

  • Freshmen enrollment declined by 1.5% overall, with numbers dropping in all four-year sectors. Highly selective institutions saw the largest drop in freshmen enrollment, with a 5.6% decline compared to a 10.7% gain in fall 2021.
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities and primary online institutions were among the few category of schools to see an enrollment increase.
  • HBCU’s enrollment grew 2.5% this fall and at primarily online institutions, undergraduate enrollment grew by 3.2% from last fall, per the report.
  • Community colleges saw the smallest declines in enrollment, posting a 0.4% enrollment loss compared to fall 2021.

Between the lines: That’s good news for community colleges, as those institutions bore much of the brunt of the pandemic drop-off.

  • Community college enrollment dropped by 9.5% during the spring of 2021, with a loss of 476,000 students, Axios’ Bryan Walsh reports.

State of play: The pandemic accelerated the trend of falling college enrollment, which had been occurring since 2012.

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