December 3, 2023

Diving overview:

  • Community colleges are showing signs of recovery after a dramatic drop in enrollment during the pandemic, according to preliminary data released Wednesday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Spring 2023 community college enrollment rose 2.1% from the previous year, largely due to an increase in spring freshmen and dual enrollment.
  • Undergraduate enrollment remained largely unchanged, rising only 0.2%. Still, stability is seen as good news, as is the number of college students significantly decreased the previous two springs.
  • Public four-year colleges were the only institutions that continued to see a drop in spring enrollment, down 0.9%. But nearly half of all enrolled students are at public four-year institutions, says Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center.

Diving Statistics:

Community college enrollment is still down 1.9% as of spring 2021, according to the data. But this year’s growth is a step in the right direction, Shapiro said during a call with reporters Tuesday.

“Community colleges have been the hardest hit sector since the pandemic began,” he said. “They lost 3.9% last spring and are currently still about 14% below pre-pandemic levels. We still have a long way to go, but it’s clearly a nice sign of improvement.”

In fact, reporting its findings “at a glance,” the center said, “community colleges may be turning the corner this spring after major pandemic declines.

Enrollment growth among the youngest students, the only age groups to see improvement, boosted the numbers, according to the clearinghouse.

Enrollment increased among college students age 17 and younger — typically students dually enrolled in a community college and high school — whose numbers in spring 2023 rose 10.6% from the previous year. During the same period, 18- to 20-year-olds also increased by 2.1%. Every other age group saw a drop in college enrollment, with 25- to 29-year-olds seeing the steepest decline, at 5.3%.

Among college students, Latinx students were the only racial or ethnic group to enroll in greater numbers this spring, up 0.9% year-over-year. White and black student enrollments decreased by 4.9% and 1.6%, respectively, while Asian student enrollments decreased by 0.4%.

Meanwhile, male college enrollments showed a slight increase compared to an almost equally slight decline for women. In the spring of 2023, there were 0.7% more university students year-on-year compared to 0.9% fewer women. This mirrors the gender imbalance from the previous year, when both groups lost students, but the number of students among college women fell almost twice as fast as men.

Among graduate students, spring 2023 enrollment also declined overall, down 1.2% from the previous year after rising at the start of the pandemic. Despite the recent loss, enrollment in this cohort remains above pre-pandemic levels, according to the data.

Shapiro noted that the results are preliminary and cover 54% of the institutions that the clearinghouse typically analyzes. Final results are expected later this year.

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