Update on US Higher Education Enrollment Estimates

Overall postsecondary enrollment tends in the US continue to represent a major trend to follow. While the focus on this blog is on EdTech, you cannot escape overall enrollment as a driver of strategy for institutions and for various technology-based markets. Back in June I wrote a post arguing that we need to look beyond Covid impacts and understand the structural changes occurring.

I think it is important to deal with evidence on enrollment trends on their own terms and not just in the context of Covid recovery, and not just based on pre-Covid trends. The data we’re seeing recently have some big implications for the health of institutions, for online and hybrid education, and for alternative educational programs (and even alternative scheduling of programs).

There are multiple macroeconomic factors to consider, including unemployment rates, a significant potential global recession, and inflation. There are also other non-Covid higher education factors such as the increasing number of educational choices beyond the degree, an increasing reconsideration of the value of a degree, and workforce-related education options.

In general, we’re moving into increased separation between the haves and the have nots. Some schools gaining enrollments, but more continuing to lose enrollments. After that June post I had several people ask me to comment on why enrollments continue to decline even as the pandemic impacts wane, but I have chosen to mostly limit my analysis mostly on what is happening (and the trends) rather than explanations. Simply put, I’m mostly a consumer of enrollment news and don’t want to get too far outside of my lane.

With that in mind, what are we seeing in terms of the new academic year with the Fall 2022 term? We won’t see broad-based survey estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse for another two months, but I think there are enough signals to guess the directions of trends. I believe that the short answer is to expect continued enrollment declines overall but at a smaller level than Spring 2022’s 4.1 year-over-year decline, and with a greater number of schools showing enrollment increases.

In terms of incoming students, the University of California system admitted a “record number of in-state students,” but overall down 5% from a year ago. Cal State Chico reported a 4% decline.

Meanwhile in Arizona, Arizona State University (5%), the University of Arizona (3%), and Pima Community Colleges (2%) are seeing increasing enrollment, yet Northern Arizona University (-2%) and Maricopa Community Colleges (-1%) are seeing declines.

In Virginia, enrollment overall is up 2% for the community college system, with roughly equal numbers of schools increasing versus decreasing, but with one school in particular accounting for the overall increase. Colorado’s community colleges are seeing an overall 3% increase.

The University of Nebraska four-campus system is reporting a 2% decline, while the Kansas public colleges and universities combined are showing a 1% decline. The University of Wisconsin system is showing a 1% decline, but if you remove the Madison flagship, it is a 3% decline.

HBCUs overall appear to have increasing enrollments.

The Community College Daily reports similar trends with growing numbers of examples of increasing enrollment but continued declines overall.

Anecdotally, some colleges from Maine to Texas are reporting a small rebound, while others are saying preliminary enrollment data indicate that at least the pace of declines appears to be slowing significantly compared to the past two years. Still, some community colleges look to face continued substantial declines that are worrisome.

One theme I’m seeing is that even with schools or systems reporting enrollment declines, many of them are also pointing to increases for incoming students (freshmen and transfers). This makes Rutgers-Camden’s 27% decrease in incoming students even more concerning, however.

If I had to guess, based on connecting a bunch of dots I would put overall enrollment declines for US higher education in the range of 1% – 3% for Fall 2022, but with more success stories than we have seen in the past 30 months. Feel free to comment if you have additional information to fill in more dots.