Combined US Higher Education Enrollment Fall 2012 – 2021

The two best sources for enrollment data for US Higher Education are the Department of Education’s IPEDS data set and the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) reports. The NSC shares both the Current Term Enrollment Estimates reports (May and December) and ongoing Stay Informed estimates during the spring and fall terms as data comes in.

  • IPEDS: Based on census with nearly all institutions reporting; best for historical data but usually 12 – 18 months after the terms has ended

  • NSC Current Term: Based on survey with “97 percent of the total enrollments at Title IV, degree-granting institutions in the U.S.” reporting; best for summarizing the term just completed in a timely manner

  • NSC Stay Informed: Based on sample of surveys to date; best for estimates in near realtime

IPEDS most recent data release was for Fall 2020 as we covered here. NSC today released their Current Term Enrollment Estimates report for Fall 2021, with plenty of outlets covering the headline findings. Inside Higher Ed reported:

Enrollments continued to fall nationwide despite a full in-person return to campus last semester for many colleges and universities, the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show.

Total enrollment—which includes undergraduate and graduate students—dropped by 2.7 percent in fall 2021 compared with fall 2020, according to the clearinghouse report. Since the pandemic began in spring 2020, enrollment has declined by 5.1 percent across the board, with 937,500 fewer students enrolled at American colleges and universities. Undergraduate enrollment declined by 3.1 percent in fall 2021 compared with fall 2020. Graduate enrollment declined by 0.4 percent.

You can read additional coverage at the Chronicle, Higher Ed Dive, and NPR.

I have reported on both IPEDS and NSC data in the past, but it seems like it would be worthwhile to show a combined model. For the following table and chart I started with existing IPEDS data for Fall 2012 through Fall 2020, and I used NSC growth / decline percentages to extrapolate IPEDS data for each sector for Fall 2021. The intent is to provide the historical context and accuracy of IPEDS along with the more timely updates from NSC.

I am showing Adjusted Sector data by removing the sector changes created by all the community colleges creating bachelor degrees and artificially reclassifying sectors. The Adjusted Sectors also remove the sector changes due to nonprofit conversions such as Purdue Global and UAGC. See here, here and here for a more complete explanation.

With that in mind, here is a combined enrollment model for Fall 2012 – 2021.

MindWires model of US higher ed enrollment by adjusted sector for Fall 2012 through Fall 2021

Now you can see the pandemic era enrollment declines in more context and get a better idea of the enrollment health of each sector in a more timely manner. Note that this combined model shows larger 2-year declines (1.2 million) than the NSC report today (937 thousand) as it is anchored on IPEDS methodology. It will be interesting to compare this model with the updated IPEDS data once it comes out by the end of 2022.