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Category: Leadership and Management

As a result of my last two academic positions (department chair and associate dean for planning and finance) at an institution that has practiced a relatively pure form of responsibility-centered management for over 30 years, I continue to follow enrollment numbers and patterns at both my institution and the national level even though I have been retired for two and a half years. This “habit” results from my realization that enrollment is critical to everything we do because it generates, through tuition and fees, about 85 percent of the dollars that, in the IUPUI School of Science, constitute our budgets.

The purpose of this article is to provide a preview of what we might expect in college enrollments for 2021–22. I will comment by institutional type and student source.

Domestic undergraduates

The pandemic has had a major impact on enrollments, but not all types of institutions have proportionately felt that impact. At about this time last year, we (those individuals and organizations that regularly track higher education enrollments) were speculating what fall 2020 would look like in terms of enrollment. Using student survey data, we predicted that community colleges would show significant increases in enrollment while the rest of our institutions would have declines.

As it turned out, students did not opt for the less expensive, closer-to-home community colleges in fall 2020 as earlier student surveys indicated. Instead we saw enrollment increases at elite colleges and universities, both public and private, while community colleges experienced plummeting enrollments (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center [NSCRC], 2020). Two major factors were responsible for turning enrollment patterns upside down. They remain in place and will set the agenda for higher education enrollments in 2021–22. The first is institutional ranking, whether done by external agencies or by each individual family with a high school senior. Places in elite institutions are highly sought after, and these schools turn down many highly qualified applicants each year. Included in this group are the Ivy League schools, University of California campuses, Notre Dame, Stanford, Washington University, Northwestern, and the like. I would suggest that most major state research universities with strong public support (and prominent athletics!) and many small college and universities with excellent academics and substantial endowments belong in this category as well. For every student who decides not to attend these institutions, there are two more students of the same quality on the waitlist. Related to the elite stature are SAT and ACT test scores, which provide a data point to separate an applicant pool that is very much identical in terms of other admission criteria. Some of these institutions were test optional in spring 2020 (Vigdor & Diaz, 2020), but the pandemic made the tests less prevalent overall because spring tests could not be scheduled. This means that a new group of applicants may be competitive at institutions to which, because of “low” test scores, they never would have applied in the past. For the 2021–2022 academic year, test scores will be even less of a factor. This accounts for the record number of fall applications recently reported for some of these institutions (Lorin, 2021). I am not certain how to articulate the take-home message this implies, but “the rich get richer” and “the big dog eats first” both come to mind.

The second major factor impacting the surprising 2020–21 undergraduate enrollments was the devastating effect that the pandemic had on low-income (LI) students (see here and here). LI students, a group that includes a disproportionate number of students from subgroups underrepresented in our institutions, were impacted at greater levels than those from higher income backgrounds by negative financial outcomes, increased COVID infections, and mental distress suffered by them and their families. As a result, far fewer LI students enrolled in the fall semester than expected.

In data compiled by the NSCRC, the fall of 2020 showed an overall drop in undergraduate enrollment of 3.6 percent that included a 10.1 percent loss in community college enrollment that was driven by a 21 percent decrease in first-year student enrollment (NSCRC, 2020). A similar loss is being incurred this spring (NSCRC, 2021b), with overall undergraduate enrollment down 5.9 percent and community college enrollment down 11.3 percent. The greatest decline was noted among the 18–20-year-old cohort which was down 7.2 percent overall and 14.6 percent in community colleges. Another significant loss of beginning, LI students is in the cards for 2021–22 based on the decrease in the number of FASFA (the FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for Pell grants, which is considered a measure for low-income status) applications (Barshav, 2021) completed by high school seniors. FAFSA numbers were down 4 percent last year and are down 16 percent, so far, for this year.

If the data are accurate, we will suffer a second year of decreased enrollments overall and another precipitous drop in low-income students. This comes at a time when there is great concern about equity within our society and institutions. Significant percentages of the students in our CCs are from underrepresented groups that we were all hoping to successfully prepare for lives as members of the middle class and beyond. The domestic workforce and our four-year institutions will also suffer losses with fewer individuals graduating at the associate level for public service jobs, technical positions, construction positions, and so on and to complete their bachelor’s work, respectively. Employment opportunities are available and will continue to grow in our post-pandemic environment at a time when the number of our prepared workers may be insufficient.

Enrollments at regional publics and most small liberal arts colleges without reputations outside of their immediate locations will likely continue to fall, which may increase the number of campus mergers and closures.

International students

This group will be difficult to call for fall of 2020. Travel bans may be lifted (Fischer, 2021), but the questions will be, Do they still want to come to the US? and Will they be able to secure visas in time? They and their families will be asking questions such as, What are the COVID infection and vaccination rates?, What is the situation on unrest on our campuses and in our cities?, and Is there an attractive alternative to the US?

Transfer students

The prediction that there would be a surge of pandemic-induced student transfers has not taken place (see here). A March 2021 study from the NSCRC has reported that the rates of the three types of transfers (up, lateral, and reverse) were down for this year.

Graduate students

Graduate enrollments have been doing quite well, with respective increases of 3.6 percent and 4.4 percent (NSCRC, 2020, 2021b) for fall and, thus far, for spring of 2020–21. They are predicted to grow further in 2021–22 (Busta, 2021). This growth has been achieved in spite of negative growth in international student numbers. Improvement in international student enrollments should further spur growth in graduate programs.

In the past several months a new factor has emerged that promises to threaten our enrollments unless we move rapidly to defuse it. In addition to the anti-science rhetoric that was exacerbated by the pandemic, there is also a general anti-intellectual attitude within the population. Recent surveys have indicated that nearly 50 percent of parents want alternatives to a four-year college for their children (Jaschik, 2021), and 12 percent of high school juniors and seniors plan to delay college (Burt, 2021). While they cite the financial impact that the pandemic has had on available family resources and have indicated their dissatisfaction with online learning, I suspect that behind many of their “reasons” for not pursuing college are the extreme political views that dominate and seriously split the US. The political rhetoric has spilled over into conversations about and within higher education. Some parents may be reluctant to send their children off to colleges where they could be exposed to COVID-19 by those who doubt the efficacy of safe practices and the solid science that has produced several successful vaccines or where they may be expected to accept the prevailing view on difficult topics of the day or risk being shamed or ostracized. It is part of the expectation of higher education that we invite dialogue on all sides on these issues, while remaining neutral, and insist that they be addressed with respect and civility. This will be a difficult task (especially the “remaining neutral” part), but if it is not done successfully, we can expect an increased loss of trust and confidence from the general public.

In summary, elite colleges and universities, as well as those with strong reputations based on excellence or wide acceptance from the overall population, will be able to admit as many students as they can serve. In community colleges the number of LI students will fall again, resulting in significant enrollment losses. The rest of higher education will, on average, see enrollment drops due to LI student losses and the loss of those students who, at least this time, have decided not to attend. International students can make up for some losses (more important for public institutions due to the tuition difference) if parents and students feel medically and personally safe and if there is enough time to secure visas. Those institutions with tuition-generating graduate programs should go all-out in promoting them. International and graduate students should be in the plans for 2022–23, when we hope our domestic issues will be settled.


Barshav, J. (2021, February 22). PROOF POINTS: A warning sign that the freshman class will shrink again in the fall of 2021. The Hechinger Report. https://hechingerreport.org/warning-freshman-class-shrink-fall-2021

Burt C. (2021, April 6). Delaying college an option for 12% of H.S. students. University Business. https://universitybusiness.com/delaying-college-an-option-for-12-of-h-s-students-survey-notes

Busta, H. (2021, February 8). Moody’s predicts continued demand for graduate programs. Higher Ed Dive. https://www.highereddive.com/news/graduate-program-revenue-will-continue-to-grow-moodys/594741

Fischer, K. (2021, April 27). As travel restrictions lift, international enrollments could rebound. Do visa backlogs stand in the way?The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/as-travel-restrictions-lift-international-enrollments-could-rebound-do-visa-backlogs-stand-in-the-way

Jaschik, S. (2021, April 21). Parents want alternatives to 4-year college. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2021/04/07/parents-want-alternatives-4-year-college

Lorin, J. (2021, January 25). Harvard applications surge as students flock to top names. Bloomberg Business. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-25/harvard-applications-surge-as-students-flock-to-biggest-names

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2020, December 17). Fall 2020 current term enrollment estimates. https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2021a, April 12). Transfer, mobility and progress. https://nscresearchcenter.org/transfer-mobility-and-progress

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2021b, April 29). Stay informed with the latest enrollment information. https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed

Vigdor, N., & Diaz, J. (2020, May 21). More colleges are waiving SAT and ACT requirements. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/article/sat-act-test-optional-colleges-coronavirus.html

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.