Home Trends in Higher Education The NSC and Why Higher Ed Enrollments Are Trending Down
The NSC and Why Higher Ed Enrollments Are Trending Down

The NSC and Why Higher Ed Enrollments Are Trending Down


The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) issued its most recent Fall 2020 enrollment report on October 15. The report uses data reported by colleges and universities to the NSC as of September 24 and compares the 2020 data to 2019 and 2018 data.

Roughly one month into the start of the traditional college fall semester, undergraduate enrollment is 4.0 percent below last year’s level. Graduate enrollment is up 2.7 percent, while overall postsecondary enrollment is down 3.0 percent.

Nationally, first-time students are down 16.7 percent. First-time students are down 22.7 percent at community colleges. These first-time students account for 69 percent of the total drop in undergraduate enrollment.

Undergraduate enrollments are down at all types of institutions except for private for-profit, four-year colleges, whose enrollment has grown 3.0 percent. Community colleges have experienced the greatest enrollment drop overall at 9.4 percent.

The vast majority of first-time students are 18- to 24-year-olds (95 percent). This traditional college age group fell by 14.5 percent nationally.

Graduate enrollments increased more this fall (+2.7 percent) versus last fall (+0.9 percent). The largest gain was experienced by private for-profits (+9.3 percent), followed by the publics (+4 percent). Private non-profits were flat (-0.1 percent).

This week’s report is part of a regular sequence of enrollment reports issued by the National Student Clearinghouse. The previous report was issued on September 24, and the next report will be issued on November 12. Since the NSC is a voluntary organization, not all colleges and universities submit their data as timely as they must with the U.S. Department of Education.

The First Look report issued on September 24 reflected data representing 22 percent of institutions that report to the NSC. The October 15 report represents 54 percent of post-secondary institutions.

It is important to note that because institutions volunteer to participate with the NSC, data from the report may or may not represent the collective group of colleges until the vast majority of participants have submitted their data. From the First Look report issued in September to this report, the number of participants increased from 22 percent to 54 percent, and the decline in undergraduate enrollments increased by nearly half. According to Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse, “But we really don’t have a way to know whether that is likely to continue.”

It’s not surprising to me that the undergraduate decline is most prominent with first-time, full-time students in the 18- to 24-year-old age group. Given that many of these students had their senior year of high school interrupted in March, reading that 16 percent fewer freshmen have enrolled this year compared to last year matches up with articles I read in July and August citing an increased number of freshmen who were considering taking a gap year. Since only 54 percent of colleges have reported their data thus far, this number could possibly increase, depending on which colleges have not yet submitted their data.

But the growth reported by for-profit, four-year colleges and universities in enrollments does not surprise me. Unlike critics of the sector who make unsupported claims about increased for-profit marketing, I believe one reason for the increase accorded to the sector may be attributable to the non-traditional student population typically served by for-profit colleges and universities, which was not impacted like the first-time, full-time traditional age group. Additionally, I believe that the largest enrollment for-profit universities predominantly teach online courses and would be least disrupted by the pandemic.

Given the recent increases in COVID-19 infections and the speculation that the numbers could increase this winter, I suspect that the decline in enrollments at traditional institutions could continue through the spring. Hopefully, a vaccine will be available to return traditional college campuses to normalcy next fall. If not, I think we’ll be writing more about closures and not enrollment declines.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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