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Enrollment in Nation’s Postsecondary Institutions Dropped More than 3 Percent from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020
September 14, 2021

Declines were Largest Among Public 2-Year Institutions

WASHINGTON (September 14, 2021)—The number of reported students enrolled in postsecondary education in the United States decreased by 651,774 students, more than 3 percent, from fall 2019 to fall 2020, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported today, based on preliminary data.

The largest decline in enrollment was among public 2-year institutions, which saw 703,168 fewer students enrolled in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019, a change of 13 percent.

However, enrollment increased for some institutions. Enrollment at public 4-year institutions increased by 61,624 students (a change of less than 1 percent). And enrollment at for-profit institutions increased at both 2- and 4-year institutions, with 22,069 more students (11 percent), at the 2-year level.

“The decrease in enrollment for two-year public institutions is concerning,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr. “These are often two-year public institutions that serve as gateways to 4-year institutions and as centers providing workforce training vital to adults of all ages.”

Enrollment in distance postsecondary education increased from fall 2019 to fall 2020, with 44 percent of students in 2020 enrolled exclusively in distance education compared to 17 percent in 2019. Moreover, about 73 percent of students were enrolled in some distance education courses in 2020, compared to about 37 percent in 2019.

“The preliminary data show that enrollment in distance education had begun to accelerate even before the coronavirus pandemic,” said Ross Santy, an associate commissioner at NCES who oversees the IPEDS collection. “The increase in enrollment for distance education was among the largest changes that we observed in this data collection.”

In addition to student enrollment data in postsecondary institutions, the IPEDS spring 2021 collection has data on the financial status of these institutions for fiscal year 2020; data on employees in postsecondary education for fall 2020; and data on academic libraries for fiscal year 2020.

Other key findings from the spring 2021 data collection include:

The annual IPEDS collection are based on data reported by postsecondary institutions. In fall of 2021, NCES plans on releasing graduation rates for cohort years 2012-13 (4-year institutions) and 2016-17 (2- and less-than-2-year institutions); outcome measures for cohort year 2012-13; student financial aid for academic year 2019-20; and admissions in postsecondary institutions, fall 2020.

NCES also plans to release the provisional spring data in late October or November of 2021.

(NOTE 1: NCES does not regularly release preliminary data for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data collection. However, due to the high level of interest in these data because of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the spring 2021 preliminary data are being released as an exception.

NOTE 2: On August 9, 2022, NCES updated this news release. The enrollment declines among public 2-year institutions in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019 is 13%, or two percentage points less than initially reported.)

Tables and data release memos can be found at: https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/use-the-data/survey-components.

Full data files and other tools for accessing the data are available at: https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/use-the-data.

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The National Center for Education Statistics, a principal agency of the U.S. Federal Statistical System, is the statistical center of the U.S. Department of Education and the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations. NCES fulfills a congressional mandate to collect, collate, and report complete statistics on the condition of American education; conduct and publish reports; and review and report on education activities internationally.

IPEDS is the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. It is a system of interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). IPEDS gathers information from every college, university, and technical and vocational institution that participates in the federal student financial aid programs. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, requires that institutions that participate in federal student aid programs report data on enrollments, program completions, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional prices, and student financial aid. These data are made available to students and parents through the College Navigator college search Web site and to researchers and others through the IPEDS Data Center. To learn more about IPEDS Survey components, visit https://nces.ed.gov/Ipeds/use-the-data/survey-components.

Contact: Josue DeLaRosa, NCES, ARIS.NCES@ed.gov, (202) 705-6692