College enrollment falls for third year in a row, down 1.5 million from pre-pandemic levels

"Historically large losses" have continued, notably among freshmen.
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

College enrollment continued to decline this year, keeping pace with a slump that began amid the pandemic and continues even as most restrictions have been lifted and vaccines have become widespread. 

Undergraduate and graduate enrollment "declined 1.1% over last fall, leading to a total two-year decline of 3.2% since 2020," the National Student Clearinghouse said in a report released on Thursday. 

The decline "has slowed to pre-pandemic rates," the Clearinghouse noted. Yet organization executive Doug Shapiro said in the release that "after two straight years of historically large losses, it is particularly troubling that numbers are still falling, especially among freshmen."

"Undergraduate enrollment declines this fall are evident across all sectors especially among four-year institutions, with a drop of 1.6% at public four-years; 0.9% at private nonprofits; and 2.5% at private for-profits," the group said. 

Notably, "the 18- to 20-year-old age group grew at community colleges by 1.4%," the Clearinghouse said.

“Although the decline has slowed and there are some bright spots, a path back to pre-pandemic enrollment levels is growing further out of reach," Shapiro argued in the release.