Trends in College Enrollment & Graduation Rates in 2022

Amy Jenkins
January 12, 2023

A Look at Back at 2022

College enrollment and graduation rates have been a topic of conversation in higher education for years—but the subject is now heating up. That’s in part thanks to the number of colleges shutting down. According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of higher education institutions that closed between 2010 - 2020 quadrupled from the previous decade.

To stave off closure, higher education admissions staff all over the country are adjusting their enrollment processes in order to remain competitive and meet the needs of their students.

But what does that actually look like? Let’s dive into three of the biggest college enrollment and graduation trends in recent years.

Rise of the Gap Year & Transfer Rates

The enrollment declines mentioned above are attributed to a few different causes, including rising tuition costs and added competition from other colleges and universities. However, another factor is the rising number of students taking a gap year.

In the past, students might choose to take a gap year between high school and higher education to explore their interests. In other words, not everyone knows what career they want to pursue out of high school—and a gap year lets them dive into a few potential career paths.

However, the recent rise in gap years isn’t solely attributed to self-exploration. Instead, students are waiting one year to enroll so they can save up money. Others might be interested in gaining professional experience, such as through an internship or an apprenticeship, before diving into higher education.

Rather than take a gap year, some students are transferring to schools that meet their needs. Oftentimes, the decision to transfer is tied to finances. Students may opt for a cheaper university or they may move closer to home to mitigate their cost of living while they pursue their degree.

Fewer Standardized Tests = More Applications

One report from Axios on SAT and enrollment trends found that one solution from admissions staff revolves around removing standardized testing requirements. This means students don’t have to complete the SAT or the ACT to be eligible to attend.

Colleges that have adapted their approach to standardized testing have already seen boosted enrollment outcomes. According to a report from Bloomberg, Cornell University saw a 40% increase in the total number of applications after making the SAT optional. So far, higher education institutions that have eliminated SAT requirements have seen more students of color and first-generation students send in applications.

Graduation Rates on the Decline

Just like enrollment rates are declining, so are graduation rates. One BN College report on the future of higher education states that the decline in graduation rates is due to rising costs. In order to cover rising tuition rates, many students must take on part-time jobs. In the end, balancing work, school, and personal life is simply too taxing.

For others, the balance isn’t too challenging—but planning ahead is, especially when it’s unclear about how much they’ll owe in tuition next semester. When students aren’t sure when to make payments, or even how, they’re more likely to miss payments—and even drop out of school, in certain cases.

Revamping the Current Model

Current trends in college enrollment and graduation rates are having a major impact on higher education institutions in 2022. Colleges and universities are having to adjust their approach to enrollment and student success to stay afloat.

More specifically, many schools are adjusting their college tuition rates in order to attract more students and increase their enrollment. Some Ivy League schools have lifted enrollment fees to encourage more students to attend, while other colleges, like Colby Sawyer, are slashing prices. For the 2023-24 academic year, Colby Sawyer will charge just $17,500 in tuition… which is less than half of this year’s $46,364 price tag. It seems like a big change but is more reflective of what most students actually pay when you take into account aid, scholarships, etc.

But keep in mind that these declines in college enrollment and graduation haven’t been the case across the board. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have seen a 30% increase in enrollment at major schools between 2018 and 2021, according to PBS.

So, what’s the takeaway here for universities? While enrollment and graduation rates have taken a nose dive in US higher education, enrollment staff are getting creative with their latest approaches. And one of the most robust for students is tied to lessening the impact of standardized testing and the costs of tuition.

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