College Enrollment Drops, Even as the Pandemic’s Effects Ebb

Even before the pandemic, though, college enrollment had been dropping nationally, with institutions of higher learning buffeted by demographic changes, as the number of college-age students leveled off, as well as questions about student debt. A highly polarizing immigration debate also drove away international students.

While elite colleges and universities have continued to attract an overflow of applicants, the pandemic has been devastating for many public universities, particularly community colleges, which serve many low- and moderate-income students.

Declines occurred generally across the country but were slightly more pronounced in the Midwest and Northeast.

In a report this week, officials in Tennessee said that the percentage of public high school graduates who enrolled in college immediately after high school had dropped from 63.8 percent in 2017 to 52.8 percent in 2021.

Overall, enrollment at public colleges and universities declined by more than 604,000 students in spring 2022, or 5 percent. Within the public sector, community colleges dropped the most, losing 351,000 students or 7.8 percent.

All told, community colleges around the country have lost 827,000 students since the pandemic began in spring 2020, according to the figures released by the research center. It collects and analyzes data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions for industry use.

In what Dr. Shapiro called possible signs of a “nascent recovery,” first-time, first-year enrollment increased in spring 2022 by 13,700 students, or 4.2 percent, over last spring.