Drop in Spring-2022 Enrollment Is Worse Than Expected

New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center provide a final tally on enrollment for the spring of 2022 — and reveal a persistent trend: College attendance continues to decline.

Undergraduate enrollment fell 4.7 percent from a year earlier, a shortfall of more than 662,000 students. Since the pandemic began, the undergraduate student body has dropped by almost 1.4 million students.

The worsening enrollment picture was unexpected, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, in a call to the media. “I thought we would start to see some of these declines begin to shrink a little bit this term,” he said, “particularly because I think there’s a general sense that we should be coming out of the effects of the pandemic at this point.”

But also in play, he said, are students who increasingly question the value of college, are wary about taking out student loans to pay for it, and who have options to join the labor market instead.

Overall postsecondary enrollment, at 16-million students, fell by 4.1 percent from a year earlier. One interesting contributor to that decline: a loss of graduate students — who had been a bright spot in enrollments throughout the first year of the pandemic. Their numbers fell by about 1 percent in the spring of 2022, from a year earlier.

The data also reveal that the number of women enrolled in college fell at a higher rate than did the number of men in spring 2022, as compared with the year before.

One sliver of a silver lining: the 4.2-percent increase in first-time students (a small group compared with the fall first-time cohort), which Shapiro pointed to as a possible sign of recovery. Nearly 340,000 freshmen enrolled for the first time this spring (about one-fifth of the first-time students who enroll in a year, he said). Six out of 10 of them were starting at community colleges.

But the top-line numbers tell only part of the story. When broken down by race and ethnicity, the data show that some freshmen are still missing from the student body.

Whether the slight increase in first-time students this spring can be sustained is an important — and unresolved — question, Shapiro said: “It really remains to be seen whether this will translate to a larger freshman recovery in the fall.”

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