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College Enrollment Continues to Plunge, Marking the Worst Single-Year Decline Since 2011

By Richard Whitmire | June 10, 2021

(National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)

Restaurants and airports may be filling up again as the pandemic eases, but not college campuses.

The continued steep drops in college enrollment, especially at community colleges which attract disproportionate numbers of low-income and minority students, are both surprising and worrisome.

This spring, overall college enrollment fell by 603,000 students, from 17.5 million to 16.9 million — a drop that is seven times worse than the year before when the pandemic first hit and marks the steepest year-over-year decline since 2011, the first year the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center began keeping track. The Research Center released the latest figures in a report Wednesday.

Community colleges were hit hardest, declining 9.5 percent, or 476,000 fewer students. More than 65 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment losses this spring occurred in the community college sector.

“The final estimates for spring enrollment confirm the pandemic’s severe impact on students and colleges this year,” said Doug Shapiro, the Clearinghouse’s executive director.

In May, the Clearinghouse released preliminary data on spring enrollments based on 76 of the country’s higher education institutions. This report includes 97 percent of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments.

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In this most recent report, California led the nation in enrollment loss by headcount with a decrease of nearly 123,000 students. New Mexico declined the most by percentage, dropping 11.4 percent. Michigan placed in the top five states for both declining enrollment and percentage drop. Only seven states showed enrollment increases from last spring, many of them modest, although New Hampshire added 18,152 students, for a 10.8 percent bump.

This report also confirmed a trend from earlier analyses: Enrollment among male students continued to fall at greater rates than female students. Men declined by 5.5 percent, or 400,000 students, while women dropped 2 percent, or 203,000 students compared with last spring.

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The continued enrollment questions are troubling mostly because the declines have persisted longer than expected. Will enrollments ever recover, or have thousands of men and minorities abandoned their college dreams?

“How long that impact lasts will depend on how many of the missing students, particularly at community colleges, will be able to make their way back to school for the coming fall,” said Shapiro.

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