College enrollments are falling in the US—except for graduate degrees

Undergraduate enrollments are in decline.
Undergraduate enrollments are in decline.
Image: Reuters/Emily Elconin
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One of the more worrying aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US is its effect on undergraduate enrollments.

Over the summer there were indications, through student loan data and Census surveys, that students were either dropping out or not enrolling in previous numbers. For some students, particularly those from low-income and minority families, the financial and logistical challenges posed by the pandemic were too much to overcome.

Now we have an early glimpse of actual enrollment figures from 629 US colleges (or about 22%) that reported their data to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that collects information for universities. The data, which compare the same colleges from 2019 to 2020, go through Sept. 10, and were reported Sept. 24.

Undergraduate enrollments are indeed falling, particularly for two-year associate degrees and certificates, which are often options for students unable to afford four-year institutions. But for graduate programs, enrollments are surging as new graduates delay entering the job market and newly unemployed college graduates seek to burnish their skills and credentials with an advanced degree.

The graduate option seeing the most growth is a post-baccalaureate certificate (or “postbac”),  a non-degree credential often pursued by students looking to switch disciplines, like a humanities major who wants to apply to medical school. The exception are professional degrees, like in business and law, which have declined slightly.

While there are reasons to be concerned Black and Hispanic enrollments might be more affected than those of other groups, so far, it doesn’t appear to be the case. According to the Clearinghouse data, they are falling for undergraduates and rising for graduates at about the same rates as other groups (the Clearinghouse used only public university data for the race and ethnicity comparisons). Across the board, the biggest declines are among international students, who face obstacles from immigration officials and who may be reluctant to travel to the US during the pandemic.

Increases in college enrollment during a recession are a well-known phenomenon. In past downturns, however, it has led to gains for both undergraduates and graduates. While it’s early, the unusual nature of this recession may be shaping student choices in different ways than in past years.