Unlike other sectors of the US economy, like air travel, which have returned to pre-pandemic levels, the higher education sector continues to falter, according to a new study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).
While the decline in first-year college and university enrollments has slowed from 3.4% in 2020 and 2.1% in 2021, it has continued at a rate of 1.1%. Unlike last year, when graduate student enrollments increased by 2.7%, this year it followed undergraduate enrollment and fell by 1%.
The study also shows that despite easier travel and a return to normal visa requirements and visa-granting systems, the percentage of international undergraduate students in United States colleges and universities continues to decline, albeit at a slower pace than in 2021, when it fell by 6%; In 2022, the decrease was 2.6%.
“After two consecutive years of historically large enrollment losses, it is particularly worrying that numbers are not picking up again at this point, particularly among freshmen [first-year students]says Doug Shapiro, Executive Research Director of the NSCRC.
differences within the sectors
The decline has not been equal across different sectors of American higher education. Four-year private for-profit universities saw their enrollment fall by 2.5% after a 4.4% drop in the previous year. The first grade class at public four-year universities is 1.6% smaller than in 2021, with a two-year cumulative decrease of 4.3%. Private four-year universities declined less than 1%.
However, these cumulative numbers don’t tell the whole story. With the exception of the Highly Selective category, which includes schools like Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas and Duke University, colleges and universities in the other three categories of four-year institutions saw enrollment declines.
Schools in the “very competitive” category saw their enrollment fall, albeit by just 0.4%, while enrollment in both public and private four-year colleges and universities in the “competitive” category fell 2.2%.
Four-year public colleges in the less competitive category saw enrollment decrease by 3.1%.
That’s why schools are “less competitive,” according to Mark Salisbury, co-founder and CEO of TuitionFit, an online service that allows college and university applicants to see the true cost of the schools they’re trying to apply to a larger decline is because these schools serve lower and middle school students, for whom the decision to attend college or university can be economically risky.
“The way American higher education shaped itself, particularly the way the marketplace works and the way it hides prices to the end, combined with what we know about millions and Knowing that millions and millions of students who have graduated and are now in debt of all kinds and not getting the salaries they hoped for means that the return on investment in tuition and fees is much riskier for them.
“If it doesn’t work for them, it has a much more damaging effect. People are more skeptical that higher education is worth it. And the lower you go on the socioeconomic scale, the stronger that skepticism becomes.”
Colleges and universities in the Highly Selective category grew just 0.5% this year. However, as Shapiro explained, that number was above last year’s 6.2% growth as those institutions offset the decline in 2020, the first year of COVID.
These schools “have seen a big decline in the first year [of the pandemic] and an increase in the second year. So now they are back down for the third year. These are schools with a lot of market power and far more applicants than places. And so they can control the size of their freshman classes exactly the way they want,” he says.
Decrease in the number of female students
At both the undergraduate and graduate level, the reversal of the decades-old trend of women enrolling in colleges and universities more than men has continued. Female undergraduates fell 2.1%, which combined with last year’s decline means that US universities have 5.5% fewer undergraduate students than before the pandemic hit.
At the graduate level, the number of female students fell by 1.9% in 2021 after growing by 2.7%.
The decline in female undergraduate students was about 2.5% in both public four-year and private for-profit four-year institutions. At private non-profit four-year schools, which include the country’s most expensive schools and where students tend to come from higher-income families, the decline was much smaller, at just 1.6%. The largest drop in female graduate-level enrollment was at private, for-profit, four-year universities: 5.4%.
Mikyung Ryu, Director of Research Publications at the NSCRC, said: “We continue to see that female students continue to struggle. We’ve seen a steeper rate of descent from women to men at all levels of education—undergraduate, graduate, and undergraduate.
“I think this is indicative of some of the unique challenges that female students will face as the pandemic prolongs. You may have particularly urgent family support or educational support [issues]. This is very worrying.”
The 2.6% overall decline in international freshman students is not consistent across different sectors of higher education in the United States. The proportion of new international students entering the country’s private nonprofit four-year schools was less than last year’s 3% increase, but still a relatively healthy 1.7%.
Surprisingly, Shapiro says, the percentage of new international students entering two-year community colleges rose 4.1%, a clear reversal of last year’s 5.9% decline.
In contrast, enrollment at public four-year colleges and universities, which educate the vast majority of US college students, declined 7%. Coupled with last year’s 11% decline in these institutions, this sector has seen the number of international students fall by 17.2% in two years.
The decline in enrollment varies across the country. The largest declines in first-year enrollments occurred in the Northeast and Midwest. New York saw enrollment fall 2.5% for the second year in a row, while Ohio’s first-grader enrollment fell 2.9% this year after seeing a 2.7% drop last year. Michigan’s 0.9% decline marks a dramatic improvement from last year’s 4.1% decline.
California, the country’s largest state, also saw an improvement, from a 5.1% drop in 2021 to a 1.6% drop this year.
New Mexico, which lost 5.5% of its undergraduate class last year, posted a 3.5% gain, perhaps a result of the new state program offering free tuition for the first two years of college education. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama all saw gains, with South Carolina being the largest at 3%.
In the first two years of the pandemic, the country’s two-year community colleges, which offer an avenue alongside training in trades like carpentry, provide poorer students (who are disproportionately black or Hispanic) with access to four-year institutions, not hundreds of thousands of enrolled students . The class of 2021 was 20.8% smaller than the pre-COVID class. This year enrollment increased by 0.9%.
Much of the growth in community colleges can be attributed to an 11.5% increase in the number of students taking advantage of dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to take courses at the community college level.
Decline within the disciplines
One of the biggest surprises in the NSCRC study was the continued decline in students enrolling in both biological and biomedical sciences and health professions. Both posted losses of 4.2% and 5.4% respectively.
Combined with last year’s declines, biomedical and life sciences intakes are now 5.4% fewer, and health professions have 8.3% fewer students. At the Masters level, the biological and biomedical sciences have 5.9% fewer enrollments and the health professions 4.2% fewer than last year.
Liberal arts, sciences and humanities majors continued their downward trend, losing 3.1% of their students after a 4.1% loss last year. Engineering also lost students: 2.5% last year after a 3% drop the year before. At the master’s level, computer and information services and support services were the only academic sector that grew. After growing 22.1% last year, this sector grew by 21.4% in 2022.
Growth in Historically Black Institutions
Perhaps the most promising piece of data in the NSCRC report is enrollment growth at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). After a 1.7% drop in enrollment in 2021, HBCUs have enrolled 2.5% more students this year.
This growth occurred in a complex news environment. On the one hand, there were regular reports of bomb threats against the HBCUs – three dozen were registered in January 2022 alone.
Countering this threat was good news. In July 2020, for example, MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, donated $40 million to Howard University (Washington, DC), perhaps the most famous HBCU, which counts US Vice President Kamala Harris as an alumna of her law school.
In December 2021, a United Negro College Fund report showed that 34.3% of graduates from HBCUs progressed to either the middle or upper class. Predominantly white colleges and universities raised only 15.8% of their black students to be middle or upper class.
The data shows that students have ignored the threats and enrolled at HBCUs in larger numbers, according to Salisbury, because “these institutions have finally gotten some of the light that’s been shining on what they’re doing since.” has been sorely lacking for decades”.
He added a moment later, “It’s nice to see the number of sign-ups coming in [increasing] Direction.”