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|
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)|
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)|
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.
|District of Columbia||119,186|
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.
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|
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:
|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|
|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|
|Michigan State University||38,950|
|Tarrant County College District||38,682|
Source: College Scorecard