College enrollment fell by 603,000 students in spring 2021, marking the largest decline in a decade

·2 min read
students wearing masks at Boston College campus
Students at Boston College wearing masks as they walk on campus. MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images
  • College enrollment in the US declined by 3.5%, or 603,000 students, in spring 2021.

  • It was the greatest enrollment decline over a one-year period since 2011.

  • The drop was driven by undergraduate enrollment, especially at community colleges.

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The number of students enrolled in US colleges in spring 2021 fell by more than half a million from the year prior, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, marking the greatest decline in a decade.

"The final estimates for spring enrollment confirm the pandemic's severe impact on students and colleges this year," said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSCRC, in a statement provided to Insider. "How long that impact lasts will depend on how many of the missing students, particularly at community colleges, will be able to make their way back to school for the coming fall."

College enrollment declined by 3.5%, or 603,000 students, from spring 2020, when enrollment was 17.5 million, to spring 2021, when enrollment was 16.9 million. It was the largest one-year drop since spring 2011. The second-largest drop occurred in fall 2020, which saw a 2.5% decrease.

Read more: An inside look at Stanford Graduate School of Business' pivot to remote learning - and why it plans to keep some of its innovations post-pandemic

Undergraduate enrollment, which fell 4.9%, was responsible for the decline, while graduate enrollment experienced a 4.6% boost. Community college enrollment was hit worst of all, with a 9.5% drop in enrolled students.

The greatest enrollment declines were in California, New York, Michigan, and Illinois. Just seven states, including New Hampshire and Utah, saw enrollment increase.

In fall 2020, freshman undergraduate enrollment declined 16%, as some would-be students opted for gap years rather than deal with virtual learning, Insider's Graham Rapier reported.

Declining enrollment and other pandemic-related expenses have taken a toll on many universities' finances. Last year, Harvard saw its revenue drop by $138 million, The Harvard Crimson reported.

With low COVID-19 case counts and much of the country vaccinated, many US colleges are planning for a return to in-person learning in the fall, though it's not clear if enrollment numbers will bounce back.

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