Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Report: Undergraduate Enrollment Finally Rising

After years of declining numbers, undergraduate enrollment at U.S. higher education institutions is finally seeing growth again, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).Dr. Jeremy CohenDr. Jeremy Cohen

According to the NSC’s Current Term Enrollment Estimates Fall 2023 report – released Tuesday – overall fall undergraduate enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities rose by 1.2%, a minor change where the number of enrollees went from 15,072,249 to 15,248,077.

This 175,828-enrollee increase marks the first rise for overall fall undergrad enrollment in a number of years. Among the years captured in the report, 2019 to 2022 all faced varying rates of decline, with Fall 2021 being the worst (-3.4%).

"We continue to see almost all of the growth [for undergrads] coming not from new freshmen, but rather from larger numbers of students who are continuing from last year and also returning from stop-outs,” said Dr. Doug Shapiro, director of the NSC research enter. “The number of new freshmen this year is up just by only 18,000 compared to last year. [Around] 10% of the total increase in undergrads is accounted for by increases in the number of freshmen."

Fall 2023 saw enrolment growth at public two-year schools and community colleges rose significantly (2.6%)  while public and private nonprofit four-year schools saw increases to a lesser degree (0.6% for both.)

Shapiro attributed this key showing from community colleges primarily to “older students, vocational students, and dual-enrolled students.”

The report also indicated that overall graduate school enrollment over the past five years has generally shown small amounts of improvement. With Fall 2023 came a 0.6% increase, following a 0.9% decrease in 2022 and positive growth for the years before. And compared to even pre-pandemic numbers, grad enrollment is doing better, Shapiro said.

“Graduate students are currently almost 5% above where they were before the pandemic,” Shapiro said. “There's been a lot of growth in graduate students."

NSC researchers examined differences between community colleges focused on transferring students as opposed to those focused on vocational programs. According to the report, enrollment at such schools with high vocational program focus grew by 111,934, a notable 16% increase, whereas schools with a high transfer focus only grew by 3,408, a 0.2% rise following four years of falling. Schools with a mixed focus saw a 1.1% increase.

Among undergraduate degree and program types across the various schools, associate degree programs experienced the most improvement (2.2%), the category’s first increase since NSC started tracking enrollment by credential level in 2015, according to the report. However, numbers are still below what they used to be in 2019, 14.2% under amounts for Fall 2019.

Similar observations can be made for bachelor’s degree program enrollment, which despite its 0.7% increase in Fall 2023, is still 3.3% lower than in Fall 2019. Meanwhile, students pursuing certificates are on the rise.

“Certificate-seekers are a close second this fall, at [a] 1.8% increase compared to last year,” Shapiro said. “And they've been growing even faster in recent years, so they now stand 15.5% higher than they were in 2019."

Community colleges saw rising Black (2.1%), Hispanic (5.5%), and Asian (6.3%) enrollment, while white and Native American enrollment fell by 1.3% and 2%, respectively.

Black undergraduate enrollment as a whole saw its first rise in five years to 1,641,582. But the numbers are still less Fall 2019 when there were than 1,792,118 Black students in college. 

On the other hand, Hispanic undergrad enrollment seems to have surpassed numbers from 2019, now boasting a 3.6% increase from the year before to 2,788,609 enrollees.

International student enrollment is up at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, especially for the latter – an approximately 22% increase – said NSC research associate Dr. Jeremy Cohen, project lead for the report.

“That's not outside the historical norm,” Cohen said. “We've seen double-digit increases for the last three years at the graduate level. [At] the undergraduate level, this is the second year of growth."

Computer and information sciences and support services proved to be the academic pursuit that had the largest enrollment boost at undergraduate four-year institutions (9.5%). Two-year schools saw a different picture, where mechanic and repair technologies had the biggest rise (11.3%) instead.

Older students, age 25 or older, experienced the highest rate of freshmen enrollment (6.5%) for Fall 2023, beating out both students age 20 or younger (0%) and age 21-24 (6%). This difference is even more pronounced at public four-year schools, where enrollment of students age 25+ had a 12.9% increase compared to the other two age groups’ sub-4% rises.

Community colleges saw similarly high growth for freshmen age 25+ (12.8%) and age 21-24 (13.9%).

Private nonprofit four-year schools didn’t see substantial change for students age 25+, a lack of movement that sticks out after a tumultuous few years of enrollment at such schools for the age group. 2020 and 2022 brought upswings of more than 20%, while 2021 swooped down almost 14%.

"Just to take public four-year institutions as an example, it seems to be a trend pretty much across race/ethnicity groups, this rise in older freshmen, especially the larger race/ethnicity groups that we report on,” Cohen said. “At community colleges, it's looking pretty similar also, pretty close to [an] across-the-board trend in older freshmen rises by race/ethnicity."








The trusted source for all job seekers
We have an extensive variety of listings for both academic and non-academic positions at postsecondary institutions.
Read More
The trusted source for all job seekers