College enrollment statistics

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There were more than 26 million students enrolled in a U.S. college or higher education institution in the 2019-20 school year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. However, the data shows that enrollment in the United States has been steadily trending downward for nearly a decade, and experts aren’t expecting those trends to change anytime soon.

Read on to learn more about college enrollment statistics, why they’re trending downward and how demographic variables like gender and race have changed when it comes to college degree-earners.

Key college enrollment statistics

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tracks college enrollment year over year, breaking down the data by degree type, demographics and more. Here are some highlights from the most recent data for the 2019-20 academic year:

  • 26,092,999 students in the U.S. were enrolled in Title IV postsecondary institutions.
  • 22,200,465 students enrolled were undergraduate students.
  • 3,892,534 students enrolled were graduate students.
  • 11,274,609 students enrolled were female, up 31.24 percent from the year 2000.
  • College enrollment has decreased in recent years, down 11.57 percent from its peak in 2010-11.

College enrollment statistics

College enrollment has steadily declined for the better part of a decade, with many choosing to pursue trade schools or join the workforce after graduating high school.

However, while college attendance on the whole is on a steady decline, major shifts in enrollment variables such as race, sex and socioeconomic status are anticipated over the next decade, says Joseph Howard, vice president for enrollment at Widener University. He predicts that the average college student within the next decade is more likely to be a student of color or a first-generation student.

With that said, the coronavirus is an added variable when it comes to future and present enrollment trends. While the impact of the virus is still playing out, Howard notes that there’s been a steep decline in FAFSA applications. This means that students on the margin of previous enrollment trends — including low-income or first-generation students — may be feeling outsized effects of the strain that COVID-19 has had on higher education.

Historical college enrollment

Howard expects that declines trending in enrollment since 2010 will continue through 2026, when the number of high school graduates are also expected to sharply decline.

Due to the financial and physical crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment numbers for the 2020-21 academic year remained relatively low. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that as of spring 2021, overall postsecondary enrollment is down 4.2 percent from a year ago.

Here’s how fall enrollment trends have trended at degree-granting postsecondary institutions from 2010 to 2019:

Enrollment year Fall enrollment
2019 19,637,499
2018 19,651,412
2017 19,778,151
2016 19,846,904
2015 19,988,204
2014 20,209,092
2013 20,376,677
2012 20,644,478
2011 21,010,590
2010 21,019,438

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

College enrollment by sex

The percentage of men versus women enrolled in college has changed slightly over time; 1979 was the first year that the number of female students surpassed the number of male students in enrollment numbers, and the percentage of female students has remained higher than that of male students ever since.

Enrollment year Fall enrollment (male students) Fall enrollment (female students)
2019 8,362,890 11,274,609
2018 8,444,614 11,206,798
2017 8,571,314 11,206,837
2016 8,638,422 11,208,482
2015 8,723,819 11,264,385
2014 8,797,530 11,411,562
2013 8,861,197 11,515,480
2012 8,919,006 11,725,472
2011 9,034,256 11,976,334
2010 9,045,759 11,973,679

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

College enrollment by race/ethnicity

The number of students who identify as Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or two or more races has been increasing over recent years. While the number of white students is on the decline, they’re still expected to make up the largest number of enrolled students for the foreseeable future.

Enrollment year Fall enrollment (white students) Fall enrollment (Black students) Fall enrollment (Hispanic students) Fall enrollment (Asian/Pacific Islander students) Fall enrollment (American Indian/Alaska Native students) Fall enrollment (students of two or more races)
2019 10,141,700 2,474,200 3,783,400 1,378,200 129,900 756,100
2018 10,305,200 2,496,100 3,642,500 1,355,200 133,100 729,300
2017 10,517,400 2,549,500 3,546,000 1,327,800 137,500 700,100
2016 10,716,600 2,589,400 3,428,000 1,306,700 142,300 665,800
2015 10,939,200 2,681,000 3,297,700 1,284,300 146,100 657,600
2014 11,239,300 2,792,800 3,191,900 1,272,200 152,900 642,200
2010 12,720,800 3,039,000 2,748,800 1,281,600 196,200 325,400

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

International student enrollment

As reported by the Migration Policy Institute, roughly 1.1 million international students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities during the 2019-20 academic year. Although this is down about 20,000 students from the previous year, the U.S. remains a top country for international students. The decline in international students can be attributed to factors like COVID-19, the rising costs of higher education in the country and the number of delayed or denied student visas.

In the 2019-20 academic year:

  • International students accounted for nearly 6 percent of all students enrolled in U.S. higher education.
  • 268,000 new international students were enrolled in U.S. colleges or universities.
  • One in three international students studied in New York, Texas or California.
  • China was the top country of origin, representing 35 percent of international students in the U.S., followed by India with 18 percent and South Korea with 5 percent.

College enrollment by state

College enrollment by state has a strong correlation with the number of postsecondary institutions within each state. For the 2019-20 academic year, California had the highest enrollment in the U.S. with more than 3.7 million students enrolled, while Alaska had the lowest enrollment with just under 39,000 students enrolled for the year.

State 2019-20 enrollment
Alabama 386,560
Alaska 38,825
Arizona 914,820
Arkansas 199,269
California 3,711,872
Colorado 517,784
Connecticut 260,162
Delaware 77,411
District of Columbia 119,186
Florida 1,487,746
Georgia 704,130
Hawaii 80,216
Idaho 182,682
Illinois 1,025,605
Indiana 588,019
Iowa 277,207
Kansas 282,526
Kentucky 337,647
Louisiana 312,362
Maine 94,435
Maryland 472,737
Massachusetts 622,360
Michigan 666,508
Minnesota 548,607
Mississippi 215,608
Missouri 456,240
Montana 61,068
Nebraska 181,741
Nevada 157,572
New Hampshire 245,622
New Jersey 542,535
New Mexico 163,246
New York 1,569,882
North Carolina 717,418
North Dakota 65,012
Ohio 865,693
Oklahoma 266,872
Oregon 308,199
Pennsylvania 859,619
Rhode Island 96,990
South Carolina 298,279
South Dakota 68,911
Tennessee 418,199
Texas 2,180,974
Utah 515,868
Vermont 55,709
Virginia 721,902
Washington 485,432
West Virginia 208,327
Wisconsin 415,689
Wyoming 41,716

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

College enrollment by institution

The type of institution matters just as much as location when it comes to enrollment numbers. Public schools on the whole have a higher enrollment rate, and public schools top the list of individual institutions with the highest enrollment numbers.

Institution type

The latest available data shows that public college enrollment is more than double that of private college enrollment. Private colleges tend to keep admissions competitive in order to keep class sizes small, which contributes to the disparity in enrollment.

In the 2019-20 academic year, college enrollment broke out as follows:

Total enrollment Public enrollment Private not-for-profit enrollment Private for-profit enrollment
26,092,999 19,031,352 5,063,485 1,998,162

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Institution

As part of its College Scorecard, the U.S. Department of Education lists total enrollment for institutions across the country. In 2019-20, Western Governors University took the lead with nearly 100,000 undergraduates.

The top 20 colleges and universities in the U.S. based on undergraduate enrollment for the 2019-20 year are:

College Undergraduate enrollment
Western Governors University 98,630
Southern New Hampshire University 90,196
Pennsylvania State University, Main Campus 74,630
University of Phoenix, Arizona 68,833
Ivy Tech Community College 58,978
University of Central Florida 58,940
Grand Canyon University 57,629
Houston Community College 55,990
Lone Star College System 55,219
Texas A&M University, College Station 53,119
Miami Dade College 46,478
Liberty University 46,438
Ohio State University-Main Campus 45,657
Arizona State University Campus Immersion 44,038
University of Maryland Global Campus 42,888
Florida International University 41,843
The University of Texas at Austin 39,783
Valencia College 39,142
Michigan State University 38,950
Tarrant County College District 38,682

Source: College Scorecard

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Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor