White Paper

Beyond the Term: How to Adapt and Respond to New Expectations for Postsecondary Education

It’s no secret that enrollment in colleges and universities declined markedly during the COVID-19 pandemic. These losses are now putting intense competitive pressure on higher education institutions to recoup their student populations for fiscal viability.

Total undergraduate and graduate enrollment had declined by 7.4%, or nearly 1.3 million students, by the spring of 2022, two years into the pandemic. While both undergraduate and graduate enrollment continued to shrink in the fall of 2022, the decline did begin to slow to nearly pre-pandemic rates.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, colleges and universities are pressed to re-evaluate their long- and short-term strategies, particularly as they relate to enrollment management and student support services.
— National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, October 2022

But pre-pandemic enrollment rates were already worrisome—the public health emergency just exacerbated a longer-term downward trend. Between 2009 and 2020, total undergraduate enrollment decreased by 9 percent, from 17.5 million to 15.9 million students. Enrollment in graduate programs outpaced undergraduate enrollment over the same timeframe, but high costs, inflation, and a hot job market may challenge graduate programs to meet their enrollment goals in the future.

Moreover, the value of a college degree may be eroding. “The tight labor market is prompting more employers to eliminate one of the biggest requirements for many higher-paying jobs: the need for a college degree.”