Enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities fell sharply this fall, with the steepest decline among first-year undergraduates, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported on Thursday (Oct. 15).
The organization receives granular data from colleges and universities and uses it in various ways, including generating reports – which are closely watched within the education sector – on enrollment patterns. The data released on Thursday is partial, but is statistically significant.
At private, nonprofit, four-year colleges, overall undergraduate enrollment was off 2 percent this year compared to fall 2019, after falling 2.1 percent in 2019 compared to fall 2018. In a dramatic hit, first-year undergraduate enrollment fell 11.8 percent this fall compared to fall 2019 after declining 3.7 percent in fall 2019 compared to fall 2018.
At public four-year colleges, overall undergraduate enrollment was off 1.4 percent in 2020 compared to fall 2019 after falling 0.8 percent in fall 2019 compared to fall 2018. First-year undergraduate enrollment at public institutions was off 13.7 percent in fall 2020 compared to a year earlier, after declining 0.4 percent in fall 2019 compared to a year earlier.
A drop in new students entering into a four-year curriculum is especially troubling for a school because backfilling seats with second-, third- and fourth-year students at all but the most elite institutions can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. As a result, a one-year enrollment glitch usually creates four years of financial challenges.
"The colleges are losing billions of dollars," Jack Maguire, founder of the enrollment consultancy Maguire Associates, told Bloomberg News. "It may not be the end of it if this new waves hits and students are sent home again."
Public two-year colleges reported a net decline of 9.4 percent of students in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019 and a 1.1 percent decline in fall 2019 compared to fall 2018. Two-year schools reported a staggering 22.7 percent decline in first-year students in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019 following a 1.4 percent increase in fall 2019 compared to fall 2018.
The only exception to this fall's pattern was for-profit, four-year colleges, which saw enrollment increase 3 percent in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019, after declining 0.8 percent in fall 2019 compared to fall 2018.
For-profit, four-year colleges also saw first-year undergraduate enrollment increase this fall – 3.7 percent in fall 2020 compared to 1 percent in fall 2019.