Fall College Data Shows Big Gains — And Jarring Freshmen Declines

Young Gen Z students opted out of four-year institutions as community college enrollment rises — particularly among older students.

Meghan Gallagher/The 74

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Despite undergraduate enrollment gains for the first time since the pandemic began, a new report shows jarring declines among traditional freshmen.

Overall college enrollment surged by 2.1 percent in fall 2023 compared to last year’s decrease of 0.9 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

But freshmen enrollment for this fall declined by 3.6 percent, particularly among 18- to 20-year-olds in four-year institutions — reversing last year’s promising 4.6 percent increase. Instead, community colleges led enrollment gains, particularly among freshmen over 21.

The enrollment increase among all freshmen at community colleges signal students’ growing interest in programs such as healthcare and construction offering short-term commitments that lead to direct employment connections, the report found.

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a statement the freshmen decline is a “troubling sign” for four-year institutions as young students opt out.

“This disparity in age aligns with the disparity in the kind of schools and the types of programs students are now choosing,” Shapiro told The 74.

Here are four key takeaways from the report:

1. Young students ages 18 to 20 led freshmen enrollment declines.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Freshmen enrollment, particularly in the 18 to 20 age group, declined by 5.2 percent despite last year’s 4.5 percent increase.

However, freshmen in the 21 to 24, 25 to 29 and over 30 age groups increased by 14.3 percent, 17.4 percent and 24.4 percent respectively.

The freshmen enrollment trend was not expected as more students applied to college for the 2023-24 academic year than last year, Forbes reported.

Shapiro said the age disparity stems from young students’ reluctance to choose traditional four-year institutions — opting instead for community colleges and certificate programs.

“This is something that should not be news to anyone at any four-year institution,” Shapiro said.

“If you’re less confident the job you get, even after earning a degree, is going to pay you significantly more than what you could make right now, it makes sense why young students would focus on short-term programs that have more direct connections to the workforce,” he added.

Kevin Carey, vice president of education policy for New America, told Inside Higher Ed the strong job market has exacerbated difficulties for four-year institutions to recruit high school graduates.

“A lot of four-year institutions are competing with the job market,” Carey said. “Some of those shorter-term degrees could represent an attempt to compromise with it.”

2. Community colleges led undergraduate enrollment growth.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Undergraduate enrollment gains particularly come from community colleges — accounting for nearly 59% of overall growth.

Community college enrollment also increased by 4.4 percent compared to last year’s 0.1 percent decline.

This growth suggests community colleges are starting to recover after taking a hit during the pandemic, the report found.

Shapiro said this aligns with the age disparities seen in freshmen enrollment as older students are more likely to attend community college over four-year institutions.

“Community colleges have only now started to improve,” Shapiro said. “To me, that signals students are looking for shorter programs, shorter commitments of time and more direct employment linkages.”

Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center, told Inside Higher Ed shifting attitudes toward four-year institutions have had indirect benefits for community colleges.

“Whether it’s around affordability, debt, preparing for the job market, I think perhaps in some ways the negative press has been a little more directed toward the four-year sector,” Brock said.

3. White student enrollment declined as Black, Latino and Asian students grew.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Black, Latino and Asian students lead overall undergraduate enrollment growth — increasing by 2.1 percent, 4.2 percent and 4 percent respectively.

White students declined by 0.9 percent, a continuation of last year’s 4.8 percent drop, but Shapiro said this is in part due to the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action ending race-conscious admissions.

“Part of the apparent decline we see in white students is because they’re not revealing their race,” Shapiro said.

He added how these demographic shifts trickle down to high school students, with less white students graduating compared to their Black, Latino and Asian peers.

4. Male student enrollment grew at nearly twice the rate of female students.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Undergraduate male enrollment increased by 2.2 percent compared to female enrollment that increased by 1.2 percent. 

The gender disparity continues the greater impact the pandemic had on women the past two years, the report found.

Shapiro said this is in part due to job market growth in careers like construction and manufacturing that historically favor men.

“It’s a small difference, but it’s been steady,” Shapiro said.

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