College Enrollment During the Pandemic

While overall enrollment in postsecondary education has been declining over the last decade, the pandemic appears to have exacerbated this trend, especially at community colleges and among non-traditional students. Enrollment across all sectors has dropped from just over 17 million unduplicated students in spring 2020 to just under 16 million in spring 2022.

This brief highlights enrollment trends from National Student Clearinghouse’s 2020–22 data. The shifts indicate that two years after the start of the pandemic, students are less likely to pursue associate degrees and attend part-time at all institutions.

Fewer students are seeking associate degrees

​Across institution types, fewer associate degree-seeking students enrolled during the past three years. Enrollment percentage changes are subject to large swings due to small enrollment counts, but we can see some patterns. The drop was steepest at community colleges, but nonprofit and public four-year institutions also saw large declines.

Changes in enrollment of associate degree-seeking students by sector 2020-22

Changes in enrollment intensity

​For the most part, part-time student enrollment has declined during the pandemic. At community colleges, the decrease in full-time enrollment was greater than part-time enrollment, but both groups dropped during the past three years. At this point, the short-lived increase in part-time enrollment at public and nonprofit four-year institutions in 2021 does not appear to represent a trend.

Changes in enrollment of part-time students by sector 2020-22

Policy connections

Students may choose to defer or postpone their postsecondary education for many reasons, such as pursuing well-paying job opportunities, needing to work to cover rising living costs, or needing to care for children. However, these choices come at a long-term cost. 

Research shows that students who complete credentials earn more over their working lives, are less likely to be unemployed, and are more likely to work in jobs that have benefits like health insurance. Institutions can help students who have stopped out during the pandemic to re-enroll and complete credentials through transfer programs. ACE’s National Taskforce on the Transfer and Award of Credit developed best practices and a database of examples institutional leaders have used to make completion possible. The federal government can also help students enroll and persist by increasing financial support to low-income students through the Pell Grant and other programs.

About Facts in Hand

​Facts in Hand is a data-driven series exploring the state of higher education today.​ Other posts in the series:

Students of Color and Degree Attainment

Who Is Borrowing for College?

Keeping the United States Competitive (PDF)