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New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center provides a somber final tally of total college enrollment in the fall of 2021: It dropped 2.7 percent from a year earlier, a decline of 476,100 students.

Undergraduate enrollment, which was down at every type of institution, slipped by 3.1 percent — or 465,318 students — from the fall of 2020. The total decline among undergraduates since the fall of 2019 — just before the pandemic hit — was more than a million students, the center said.

As colleges navigate their second full academic year of the pandemic — with some pivoting to online instruction as cases of Covid’s Omicron variant rise — undergraduates are “continuing to sit out in droves,” Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, said in a news release.

One somewhat bright spot appeared in the center’s new report: The data show that freshman enrollment stabilized in the fall of 2021, increasing 0.4 percent. Four-year private nonprofit colleges added 11,600 students to lead that increase.

But enrollment for that group of students still didn’t come close to what it was before the pandemic. The fall-2021 freshman class was 9.2 percent smaller — about 213,000 students — than it was in the fall of 2019.

Enrollment at community colleges, still the hardest-hit sector since the pandemic began, dropped 3.4 percent in the fall of 2021 from the same time in 2020. Since 2019, community colleges have lost more than 700,000 students.

Data from the center also show that enrollment fell in each of the five largest undergraduate majors at four-year colleges: business, health, liberal arts, biology, and engineering. Liberal arts, down 7.6 percent, declined the most.

Audrey Williams June

Audrey Williams June is the news-data manager at The Chronicle. She explores and analyzes data sets, databases, and records to uncover higher-education trends, insights, and stories. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or follow her on Twitter @audreywjune.

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