September 8, 2021

It’s that time of year. High school seniors are graduating and about to fly the nest, ready to settle into their new normal of ramen dinners and all night study sessions at the library. Or are they?  

Current enrollment data for the 2021-2022 school year, even when compared to the subpar enrollment levels from 2020, doesn’t look great. While there are still pockets of sunshine, it would be disingenuous to claim the next school year is all bright skies ahead. While it’s possible many students are putting the decision off until the last possible minute, waiting to see if anything big changes in government funding, public policies, or their personal situations.  

Here’s some of the biggest shifts in higher ed for the next school year- both for good and… frustrating.  

The Bad News 

Let’s rip off the biggest band-aid first. There will be fewer students on campus this fall compared to last year (and numbers were already down last year from 2019 as well). Enrollment numbers for the 2021-2022 school year are down 4.5% compared to the previous fall. Broken down, the steepest drop comes from the typical undergraduate-aged student (18-24) at 5.3% fewer students enrolling.  

Socio-economically, the biggest gap in enrollment decline is students from low-income neighborhoods. Graduating seniors from impoverished high schools are currently 2.3 times less likely to be attending any school of higher education this fall than their counterparts from more affluent schools.  

This is corroborated by the data found looking at FAFSA submissions. Going into the 2021 fall semester, submissions are universally down across the country, excepting Illinois, South Dakota, and Wyoming. In some bigger states like Michigan and California, those rates are down 10% or more compared to this time last year. This means students from lower-income families– part of the largest growing target market for colleges and universities– are likely to be underrepresented in the class of 2025, since the majority of students who started their education in 2019 or before are continuing to attend, by and large. Many of those lower income would-be students are continuing to choose a gap year or focusing on directly entering the job market.  

The largest drops in enrollment are found at community colleges, long seen as the bulwark of low-income collegiate success. They’re seeing an overall 9.5% drop in enrollment for 2021. This means there’s still no sign yet of the typical post-recession boom among adult students in community college.  

*** Analysis: 6 charts showing the state of college enrollments in the Spring of 2021 ***


The Understanding America Survey also points to around 30% of students wanting to limit their potential higher ed choices to those closer to home and those at lower price points. This might be mitigated with creative financial aid options or the proposed doubling of Pell Grant award amounts.   

In still more bad news, transfer enrollment rates are also down significantly. Despite colleges paying lip service to improving the ease of transferring to maintain student numbers and also improve diversity, the numbers tell a different story. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall transfer enrollment rates are 7.9% lower this year than last. This is 3.8 times worse than rates seen in 2019. Black and Latinx students had the largest decline in collegiate mobility and transfers.  

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The Good News 

More students are enrolling in graduate programs this fall compared to last, around 4.3% more. Even better, enrollment in specifically graduate-level certificate programs saw an extraordinary 15.9% increase. Part of that is due to a huge demand for all-online graduate programs, but part of that is also a shifting labor market that has students rethinking career paths.  

Ivy League schools are seeing record numbers of applications. Harvard received more than 57,000 for the 2021-2022 school year, up 43% from the previous year. Columbia, Yale, and all the rest saw similarly shocking numbers, which lead to some record low acceptance rates below 5%.  

In fact, applications in general were up this year. Common App reported it processed close to 6 million applications this year for slightly over 1 million individual applicants. That’s an 11% increase from last year in the number of applications sent out, even if the numbers of students actually applying went down.  

Part of the growing trend in applications is thought to be directly related to the “test optional” portion. While previous students, especially students of color, might have shied away from applying to the most competitive schools, removing the SAT/ACT/subject test score submission requirement has been freeing. In fact, MIT’s dean of admissions, Stu Shmill, directly connects the permanent removal of subject test score data to the large spike in applications.  

Online schools, unsurprisingly, continue to do well. Schools that operate primarily online saw a 7.2% increase in enrollment this year. Some of that is first year students, certainly, but at least some of that bump came from students transferring away from their on-campus experience.  

Community colleges might have some reason to hope in the upcoming school year. Charles Lloyd, president of White Mountains Community College in New Hampshire, points out in a Forbes interview that “community colleges are known for being nimble and able to respond quickly to the needs of business and industry. This makes community colleges even more critical in the workforce training area.” Especially with Biden’s proposed twin infrastructure and education budgets recently laid out, there’s hope for increased funding to draw students back into the classroom, though perhaps not in time for the 2021 fall semester.  

International students might soon be returning in higher numbers as well. A survey of over 800 prospective international students has shown that a majority of students (67%) are more likely to apply to schools in the US with Biden as president. Of course, there are still some snags in travel bans and visa processing times, which will complicate matters if not resolved soon.