Published on 2023/09/07

Digging Into Enrollment Numbers for Higher Education: Fall 2022 and Spring 2023

The scope of enrollment in higher education has changed drastically over the past few decades, with community colleges continuing to face challenges, high school students representing a growing postsecondary population and non-degree or non-certificate groups going strong.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center publishes regular updates on term enrollments. Those reports provide us with useful insights.

A few key trends:

  • Enrollments by adult undergraduates continue to drop.
  • Nonprofit four-year colleges have bucked the trend of declining adult student enrollment with growth in graduate programs.
  • An interesting category of public two-year colleges that offer BAs have fared well in associate enrollments but have fared poorly in BA enrollments.
  • Community colleges are continuing to face enrollment challenges.
  • The rate at which high school students take college classes continues to increase, and enrollment among non-degree and non-certificate students continues to be strong.

Adult Student Enrollment Continues to Drop

Enrollment among adults (ages 25 and up) in undergraduate programs continues on a decline that started years ago (peaking in 2012) and is most acute in the purely associate-level community colleges. Over the last five years, enrollment among adult undergraduates in these public two-year institutions has declined by 25%. The for-profit sector has gained 11% over this period.

The decline continued this spring term.

PAB is the category of community colleges that offer a bachelor’s degree.

Over spring enrollment for adult students has declined by 10%, or 644,563, over the past five years. In community colleges, the decline is proportionally more severe, losing more than 500,000 adult students. Since community colleges are a major source for degree completion, this decline is hitting everywhere.

In general, the median ages for students enrolled is going down. This shows up strongly in the for-profit and two-year categories, where the median age has declined significantly.


The answer for the question “Why are adult student enrollments declining?” is complex.

Not Demographics

The size of high school graduating classes rose from 1997 to2017 (when today’s 25-year-olds graduated). So, demographics are not the answer.

Community College Decline

The continuing decline in community college enrollment goes back to 2011, and that sector’s decline in adult student enrollment has been more severe than the overall decline. Fewer adult students are starting and finishing community college. In Fall 2011 (the peak year), there were 2,613,837 students aged 25 and up at public two-year colleges (primarily associate degrees but offer BAs + all other public two-year). In Fall 2022, there were 1,836,163, which amounted to a loss of 777,674 students or 30% .

“College isn’t needed”?

Jamie Merisotis of the Lumina Foundation recently said:

The “college isn’t needed” refrain is dangerously short-sighted. People with a high school education are unlikely to see much growth in their earnings, while those with a college degree will earn nearly twice as much, on average. As the Georgetown Center on Education and Workforce reports, a college degree is worth $2.8 million over a lifetime. 

The bizarre myth about the declining value of a college education, which was started by folks who have graduated from college, harms low-income working folks the most. We need to re-establish the key role that colleges play in preparing folks for a meaningful life as well as a great career.

Sectoral Enrollments

Switching to a look at enrollment among all students, spring 2023 numbers give us some perspective.

The five-year trend in spring enrollments for bachelor’s-seeking students is positive for the for-profit sector and weak elsewhere.

Spring enrollment among graduate students is up in the public and nonprofit sectors but down in the for-profit sector.

Public Two-Year Colleges That Offer the BA

Relative success of public two-year institutions primarily associate degrees that offer BAs is not in the BA category. These are two-year institutions like Miami Dade that offer the BA but are primarily associate degree-granting institutions. This interesting sector has shown some success in recent years. Consisting of large community colleges (mostly in Florida, Washington and Texas), enrollments in this sector have increased by 19% among associate degree-seekers of all ages and by 12% among other undergraduates (i.e., not seeking a degree or certificate). This relative success is balanced against a continuing precipitous fall in enrollments in the broader community college sector, which are down by 28% among associate degree-seekers of all ages and 16% among other undergraduates of all ages.

This sector appears to be faltering in the BA category and is now at a sizable deficit in BA enrollment among students of all ages. That trend is also reflected in the spring enrollment, with a decline of nearly 40% over five years.

Enrollment While in High School

Enrollment among students under 18 years of age has continued to boom. Enrollment at public two-year colleges and PABs among the under-18 crowd has increased by 168,863 in the last five years. The dual-enrollment student, enrolled in high school and taking a community college course, has become ever more important to public two-year colleges, with enrollment in that sector growing significantly.

Non-Degree Enrollment

Enrollment in non-degree/non-certificate programs accounts for a sizable number of students, with over 2,000,000 enrolled. When registrars fill out the IPEDS survey, they subtract the number of degree-seeking students from the total of undergraduates, then report the remainder as other undergraduates. From the Clearinghouse data, “The other undergraduate category includes undergraduate certificate/diploma, teacher preparation and special non-credential programs that have been classified by institutions as undergraduate programs, as well as enrollments that are not part of any structured program and missing program level data”. Students under 18 or those exploring college prior to matriculation are often reported here, as are retirees enrolled in a literature class.

The spring numbers convey a pattern of sizable growth in the public and for-profit sectors for other undergraduates, with a total enrollment of just under 2 million.

Associate Degrees Shrinking

Enrollment among those seeking associate degrees continues to shrink, with a rise at for-profits and sizable declines at community colleges.

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