Education Policy

Education Policy

By Nathan Grawe·June 7, 2022

Carleton College

The problem:

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment at U.S. post-secondary institutions fell 4.7% in the spring of 2022 compared to the same period a year earlier. While the rate of decline was somewhat lower than the 4.9% annual reduction seen in the spring of 2021, the 2022 decline was worse than many expected given vaccine availability and trends toward operations. more normal academics – changes that some hoped would mark the start of the pandemic recovery. Spring 2022 data shows that weak enrollment continues to be particularly pronounced among two-year programs. However, traditional age and male enrollments have held up better than those of older students and females, reversing trends seen earlier in the pandemic. The continued decline in undergraduate enrollment compounds the challenges that many post-secondary institutions already face due to declining birth rates and changing demographics.

Enrollment losses in the two pandemic years led to starkly different outcomes, with public two-year colleges seeing the biggest drop.


  • Spring 2022 undergraduate enrollment was disappointing, although some segments of the post-secondary education market suffered greater losses than others. Notably, the number of students seeking an associate’s degree fell 8.3%, while the loss rate in the bachelor’s degree-seeking market was only a third higher. . Given this shift in student activity, public two-year institutions suffered a disproportionate share of the decline in enrollment (7.8%), while private, non-profit four-year colleges and universities, which grant few associate degrees, recorded a loss of only 2% (see graph ).
  • These patterns reinforce those seen throughout the pandemic, leading to very different cumulative effects across sectors. While the pandemic hit in March 2020, enrollment decisions for Spring 2020 had already been made by then. Pandemic-induced enrollment losses emerged in the 2020-21 academic year, and spring 2021 undergraduate enrollment was 4.9% lower than the previous year’s levels. In this first year of the pandemic response, losses were greatest in the two-year sector, which saw a 9.5% decline in enrollment. In the same year, undergraduate enrollment fell 1.9% and 2.8% in public and private, nonprofit four-year institutions. The accumulation of losses over the two pandemic years has led to very different results. Between spring 2020 and spring 2022, enrollment in public two-year colleges fell 16.6%, compared to losses of only 5.8% and 4.7% in public and private nonprofit colleges of four years.
  • Weakness in spring 2022 enrollment was particularly evident among “non-traditional” students (those 25 and older), reversing the trend seen the previous year. Enrollment (undergraduate and graduate) for ages 25 and older fell 5.8% between spring 2021 and spring 2022, nearly double the rate of decline seen among ages 24 and younger. This trend of relative weakness in the non-traditional market was reported by all higher education sub-sectors. A year prior, the trend had exactly reversed, with enrollment of non-traditional students dropping just 1.2%, compared to a 4.7% loss among traditional-aged students. When the two years are combined, the losses in the two groups have been within one percentage point of each other since the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. The reasons for the different patterns between 2021 and 2022 remain. topics for future research. It may be that labor shortages and the corresponding high wages caused older students to drop out of school. Alternatively, younger students likely to leave higher education may have already left in 2021, so what we see in 2022 is simply older students catching up with the same choices seen in higher education. younger cohorts.
  • The decline in enrollment reported in the spring of 2022 was particularly evident among women, also a reversal of enrollment trends from the previous year. Spring 2022 enrollment (undergraduate and graduate) was 4.6% lower for women compared to a 3.3% decline for men. This result contrasts with enrollment results in the spring of 2021, when women saw a drop of just 2.0%, less than half the 5.5% loss seen for men. Again, research has not identified the causes of these gender differences. A few clues seem important. First, job losses were larger for women than for men in the early months of the recession, which may have influenced spring 2021 enrollments. Second, the relative decline of women in spring 2022 s explained entirely by enrollment in public two-year institutions; male and female enrollment in four-year institutions both declined by 2.8%. These two facts suggest that relative ebbs and flows in labor markets may explain the impacts on schooling. In total, the pandemic has reduced male enrollment more than female enrollment, with much of this effect due to two-year college experiences. Economists Diane Schanzenbach and Sarah Turner estimate that almost all of the gender disparity in college enrollment over two years between fall 2019 and fall 2020 is explained by disproportionate enrollment among men in degree programs that involve “learning through hands-on experience”. , such as welding or auto repair and maintenance – which have been heavily impacted by pandemic mitigation policies such as reduced capacity in teaching spaces due to social distancing requirements and deep cleaning frequent shared spaces.
  • Application data offers hope for a fall 2022 enrollment rally. Applications for federal financial aid (FAFSA) rebounded this spring to match those seen prior to the 2019-20 academic year. The growth in FAFSA applications has been particularly strong in school districts with low incomes and high proportions of students of color – groups that had experienced a greater decline in enrollment at the start of the pandemic. This federal aid application data is consistent with patterns reported by the Common Application (an application service used by nearly 1,000 public and private colleges and universities across the United States). Through mid-March 2022, the number of unique first-year Common Application applicants had increased by 7.5% over the previous year, with disproportionate gains among under-aged minority applicants. represented, first generation or beneficiaries of an application fee waiver.