I have been a fan of the National Student Clearinghouse for years. The Clearinghouse publishes several research papers a year utilizing data from enrollment surveys its members submit. Data from those surveys precedes the publication of enrollment data by the U.S. Department of Education by months, if not a year.
Each Fall, the Clearinghouse publishes a preliminary college enrollment report for the current academic year. Last year, I provided a summary overview of their fall report. I thought I would provide an overview of this year’s report with a few comparisons to last year’s data as well as comments about the trends.
Institutions that report enrollment data to the Clearinghouse account for 97% of all students enrolled at Title IV institutions in the U.S. Institutions that reported Fall 2023 enrollments as of September 28, 2023, represented 54.5% of all Title IV institutions and combined undergraduate and graduate enrollments of 9.6 million students.
Fall 2023 Enrollment Overview
The big news was that overall undergraduate enrollment increased by 2.1 percent over 2022. Community colleges (+4.4%) accounted for 59% of the undergraduate enrollment increase. Shorter enrollment terms are more popular for undergraduates with undergraduate certificate programs up 9.9%, associate degrees up 3.6%, and bachelor’s degrees only up .9%.
Graduate certificates (+5.7%) enrollments outpaced the growth of master’s (+.2%), first professional (+1.2%), and doctoral (+1.1) enrollments.
Undergraduate students in the 18-20 age group grew by 3%, approximately the same percentage growth as students in the over 30 age group. Dual enrollment high school students outpaced all age sectors with an 8.8% increase. All sectors saw growth from the lowest income quintile, with community colleges experiencing the highest growth from that quintile at 6.7%.
With implications for future enrollment, freshmen undergraduate enrollment declined by 3.6%. Freshmen enrollment is only .8% above Fall 2021 freshmen enrollment as almost all last Fall’s gain in freshmen enrollment was eliminated. Nearly all the decline occurred at public and private non-profit four-year institutions with -6.9% and -4.7% respectively.
The lowest income quintile accounted for less than 7% of freshmen at highly selective and very competitive public four-year institutions in Fall 2022. Those same two groups of students declined by 16.6% and 14.7% in Fall 2023.
Black, Latinx, and Asian students drove most of the undergraduate enrollment increase this year with 2.1%, 4.2%, and 4.0% increases. White undergraduate enrollments declined by .8% from Fall 2022.
Changes in Enrollment by Top Degree Programs
Six undergraduate certificate programs experienced double-digit enrollment increases. These were: Liberal Arts & Sciences, General Studies, and Humanities (+29.9%), Precision Production (+14.2%), Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services (+11.9%), Security and Protective Services (+10.9%), Construction Trades (+10.4%), and Mechanic and Repair Technologies (+10.3%).
Enrollment in STEM majors increased across bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees with 1.2%, 3.1%, and 1.8% growth respectively. Men enrolled in STEM master’s programs exhibited the highest individual growth rate in that group with a 4.4% increase.
Full-time undergraduate enrollment grew by 2.3% while part-time undergraduate enrollment increased by 1.7%. Among institution types, four-year for-profit schools grew at a 9.0% rate followed by two-year public schools at a 5.5% rate.
Changes in Enrollment by State/Region/Campus Setting
Data was available for 46 states. Among those states, less than 12 had declines in overall enrollment with the greatest decline experienced by Vermont’s colleges (-4.7%). Six states saw enrollment growth of at least 4% with Kentucky experiencing the highest overall enrollment growth (+5.6%).
Increases in undergraduate enrollment were experienced in all regions with the South and West experiencing the highest growth at +2.7% and +3.0%.
Enrollment at Primarily Online Institutions (POIs) had significant growth with undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduate enrollments at POIs increased 10.2% and graduate enrollments increased 6.2% for an overall enrollment increase of 9.5%.
HBCUs experienced enrollment growth as well. Undergraduate enrollment increased by 6.1% supported by freshmen enrollment growth of 9.2%.
Final Thoughts on National Student Clearinghouse
Undergraduate enrollments experienced the greatest growth in shorter term programs such as undergraduate certificates (+9.9%) and associate degrees (+3.6%). Dual enrollment programs, which I have recently reviewed in my blog, grew by 8.8%. At the graduate level, graduate certificates enrollment growth (+5.7%) outstripped all other programs.
Whether the increased enrollments in shorter term undergraduate and graduate certificate programs are due to a more focused emphasis by employers on students with those skillsets or a desire by students for a shorter and less expensive academic accomplishment is unknown.
Dual enrollment programs are receiving attention at the federal and state level for their ability to shorten the time and cost to earn a degree. It’s natural that students capable of completing those courses in high school would do so. While most dual enrollment high school partners are two-year colleges, bachelor’s degree institutions should consider it.
The highest growth in the enrollment of lower income students (measured by quintiles) is at two-year institutions. This is no surprise given the two-year institutions’ lower cost of attendance.
The two regions experiencing the highest undergraduate enrollment growth, the South (+2.5%) and the West (+2.7%), are not surprising given projected demographic changes.
Lastly, the Clearinghouse has segregated Primarily Online Institutions as a group. For years, states that house POIs like Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors, APUS, Capella, ASU Online, and University of Phoenix have had to “adjust” their enrollment numbers to eliminate enrollments at these very large online programs in order to assess how their traditional institutions are doing. The POIs’ higher-than-average growth continues.
Even though there are four states that did not report their enrollment numbers to the Clearinghouse in time for this Fall report, the final overall numbers are likely to mirror the Fall numbers.
Private non-profits experienced the lowest overall growth. Interestingly, the least selective private non-profit institutions grew enrollments at a 3.6% rate, much higher than the sector’s overall growth rate of 1.4%. It’s my assumption that higher tuition discounts leading to a lower net price influenced the growth rate of the least selective institutions.
Is higher education poised for a rebound? I doubt it. Growth in shorter term certificates and two-year institutions as well as for-profit four-year and Primarily Online Institutions offset the dismal results of the public and private non-profit four-year institutions. Price, time to complete, and career relevance appear to matter more than ever before.