The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed Americans’ lives, both economically and socially. And higher education hasn’t been spared. Many Americans used the pandemic to rethink their finances, including whether they should take out student loans and enroll in college.
Student Loan Calculator researchers dug into Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data from approximately 1,800 colleges across the U.S. to see where the pandemic most impacted new enrollment. Overall, new enrollment — first-time undergraduates applying, being admitted, and enrolling — dropped 3% between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, with colleges in Wyoming, Alaska, and Delaware most affected.
Researchers also tracked new enrollment at the school level to highlight the colleges with the largest enrollment declines in the same period. Here are the findings.
- College enrollment among first-time undergraduates is down 3% amid the pandemic. Across the nearly 1,800 colleges with available data, new enrollment fell from 1.58 million in the 2019-2020 school year to 1.53 million in 2020-2021.
- Six states saw double-digit new enrollment declines between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years. Wyoming led this group with a year-over-year drop of 19%, though it’s also the state with the smallest enrollment figures in 2020-2021 across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Ahead of Wyoming is Alaska (16% decrease) and Delaware (12% decrease).
- On the flip side, eight states saw new enrollment increases in this period, led by two with double-digit jumps. New Hampshire colleges saw a 25% jump in enrollment, with Arizona behind at 10%.
- Three states that saw growth between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years still have new enrollment numbers lower than before the pandemic. Enrollment numbers rose in 2020-2021 in North Dakota, New Mexico, and Louisiana but were below the 2018-2019 figures before the pandemic.
- At the school level, St. John’s University in New York saw the biggest new enrollment decline between 2019-2020 and 2021-2021. Enrollment at the Queens school went from 3,135 in 2019-2020 to 2,082 in 2020-2021 — a drop of 34%.
This study focuses on new enrollment. That means first-time degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates applying, being admitted, and enrolling — whether full-time or part-time — in the fall. This includes early decision and early action students, as well as students who enroll in the prior summer. When we highlight enrollment figures in the study, we’re referencing new enrollment rather than total enrollment in that state or at that college.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges across the U.S. experienced a 3% decline in new enrollment. Using data from nearly 1,800 colleges, Student Loan Calculator researchers found enrollment dropped from 1.58 million in the 2019-2020 academic year to 1.53 million in 2020-2021.
The initial financial impact of the coronavirus crisis was widespread and devastating. The national unemployment rate spiked to 14.7% in April 2020 — the highest in recorded history — with 23.1 million people out of work. The crisis forced many consumers to reevaluate financial and life decisions, including whether going to college in this environment was right for them.
Other students may have decided to take a gap year, giving them a break on college tuition and room and board — both of which can be major expenses for students and their families. In fact, tuition is a worsening issue, as an August 2021 Student Loan Calculator study found it rose 26% at public universities over the past decade — including in Louisiana by 99%.
As college price tags continue to grow and Americans continue to recover from the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis, we may continue to see college enrollment numbers drop. More people may opt for alternatives such as trade schools, apprenticeships, or certification programs.
How was new enrollment trending ahead of the pandemic? Enrollment was slightly higher in 2018-2019 at 1.60 million, equating to a smaller 1% year-over-year decrease between 2018-2019 and 2019-2020.
Enrollment decreased by double digits in 6 states
While colleges in the U.S. saw an overall dip in new enrollment, schools in Wyoming, Alaska, and Delaware experienced some of the highest declines — double digits, in fact.
In Wyoming, there was a year-over-year enrollment decrease of 19% between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years. In 2019-20, there were 1,760 students enrolled in Wyoming colleges, but that number fell to 1,424 in 2020-2021.
Even before the pandemic in 2018-2019, Wyoming had the smallest number of enrolled students of any state at 1,859. For full transparency, the data for the state is for one school — the University of Wyoming — as it’s the only four-year university there.
Other states that experienced steep declines include:
- Alaska (16%)
- Delaware (12%)
- Colorado (11%)
- Washington (10%)
- Vermont (10%)
Similar to Wyoming, Alaska, Delaware, and Vermont have much lower enrollment numbers than more populated states.
In Alaska, the University of Alaska Anchorage had the most enrolled students in 2020-2021, totaling 1,057. In Delaware, the University of Delaware boasted the largest number with 4,174 students enrolled.
Even before the pandemic, however, some schools experienced a drop in numbers. For instance, the University of Alaska Anchorage went from 1,877 enrolled students in 2017-2018 to 1,606 in 2018-2019, then 1,356 during the 2019-2020 school year.
Schools in New Hampshire, Arizona saw double-digit enrollment increases
Despite the nationwide decline, not all schools watched new enrollment numbers plunge during the pandemic. In New Hampshire and Arizona, enrollment increased in the double digits, by 25% and 10%, respectively.
Other schools that saw a jump in the number of enrolled students included:
- Hawaii (9%)
- Utah (7%)
- Georgia (6%)
- North Dakota (2%)
- New Mexico (1%)
- Louisiana (1%)
Schools in Florida and Nebraska experience zero fluctuation in their enrollment numbers.
However, despite experiencing growth between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years, schools in North Dakota, New Mexico, and Louisiana had new enrollment numbers that were still below pre-pandemic numbers in 2018-2019:
- North Dakota: 5,844 students were enrolled in 2018-2019, versus 5,639 in 2020-2021
- New Mexico: 6,157 students were enrolled in 2018-2019, versus 6,003 in 2020-2021
- Louisiana: 27,843 students were enrolled in 2018-2019, versus 27,535 in 2020-2021
While schools in these states are seeing some recovery, it’s at a slower pace. It may take time before these schools are back at their pre-pandemic enrollment numbers.
Here’s a look at the data in the 50 states and the District of Columbia:
|How new college enrollment has changed (by state)|
|Rank||State||2020-2021 new enrollment||2019-2020 new enrollment||Percentage change from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021|
|14||District of Columbia||8,558||9,132||-6%|
|Source: Student Loan Calculator analysis of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data from the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years.|
St. John’s University experienced the largest enrollment decrease during the pandemic
We talked about what’s happening at the state level, but how about at the school level? According to our data analysis, St. John’s University in New York had the largest new enrollment decline between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years.
For this portion of the analysis, Student Loan Calculator researchers ruled out colleges with new enrollment below 1,000 students and any schools that saw an increase in enrollment.
Enrollment numbers at Queens college dropped a whopping 34% — from 3,135 in 2019-2020 to 2,082 in 2020-2021.
Other schools that saw significant declines in their enrollment numbers included:
- Southern Connecticut State University (29%)
- DeVry University in Illinois (29%)
- Drexel University in Pennsylvania (26%)
- University of Colorado Colorado Springs (26%)
- University of Northern Colorado (25%)
- San Francisco State University (25%)
The drops in enrollment at the University of Colorado Colorado Spring and the University of Northern Colorado follow the state of Colorado’s overall trend of enrollment declines (11%).
However, though Southern Connecticut State University has the second-highest rate of enrollment decrease, Connecticut itself has among the lowest year-over-year declines in enrollment (3%).
To provide a closer look, Student Loan Calculator researchers compiled a list of the five schools in each state with the biggest new enrollment drops between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years. If five schools aren’t listed (or a state isn’t included), there weren’t five schools that matched our criteria and saw enrollment decrease. As such, populated states are more likely to have five schools listed here.
|Biggest declines (by state)|
|School name||2020-2021 new enrollment||2019-2020 new enrollment||Percentage change from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021|
|Jacksonville State University||1,313||1,493||-12%|
|University of Alabama in Huntsville||1,345||1,497||-10%|
|University of Alabama at Birmingham||2,154||2,346||-8%|
|The University of Alabama||6,507||6,764||-4%|
|Alabama A&M University||1,664||1,710||-3%|
|University of Alaska Anchorage||1,057||1,356||-22%|
|University of Arizona||7,334||7,683||-5%|
|Northern Arizona University||5,217||5,455||-4%|
|Arkansas Tech University||1,756||2,091||-16%|
|Arkansas State University||1,293||1,395||-7%|
|University of Central Arkansas||1,715||1,840||-7%|
|San Francisco State University||2,779||3,694||-25%|
|California State University, East Bay||1,088||1,438||-24%|
|California State University, Stanislaus||1,238||1,568||-21%|
|California State University, San Bernardino||2,286||2,885||-21%|
|California State University, Northridge||4,016||4,792||-16%|
|University of Colorado Colorado Springs||1,305||1,772||-26%|
|University of Northern Colorado||1,357||1,812||-25%|
|Colorado State University||4,579||5,218||-12%|
|University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus||1,397||1,585||-12%|
|University of Colorado Boulder||6,326||7,113||-11%|
|Southern Connecticut State University||1,081||1,523||-29%|
|Central Connecticut State University||1,198||1,377||-13%|
|University of Hartford||1,141||1,234||-8%|
|Delaware State University||1,001||1,142||-12%|
|University of Delaware||4,174||4,617||-10%|
|District of Columbia|
|George Washington University||1,978||2,619||-24%|
|Florida A&M University||1,039||1,361||-24%|
|Florida State University||6,009||7,106||-15%|
|Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University||1,499||1,710||-12%|
|Florida Gulf Coast University||2,595||2,774||-6%|
|Savannah College of Art and Design||2,128||2,775||-23%|
|Georgia State University Perimeter College||3,148||3,929||-20%|
|Georgia College & State University||1,363||1,481||-8%|
|Brigham Young University-Idaho||4,887||5,211||-6%|
|Boise State University||2,845||2,993||-5%|
|University of Idaho||1,425||1,475||-3%|
|University of Illinois Chicago||3,541||4,407||-20%|
|Loyola University Chicago||2,129||2,630||-19%|
|Illinois State University||3,353||3,860||-13%|
|Southern Illinois University Edwardsville||1,554||1,667||-7%|
|University of Southern Indiana||1,286||1,585||-19%|
|Purdue University Fort Wayne||1,388||1,609||-14%|
|Ball State University||3,567||4,072||-12%|
|Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis||3,811||4,295||-11%|
|Purdue University Northwest||1,099||1,235||-11%|
|University of Iowa||4,510||4,986||-10%|
|Iowa State University||5,071||5,597||-9%|
|University of Kansas||3,829||4,125||-7%|
|Kansas State University||2,986||3,202||-7%|
|Wichita State University||1,579||1,689||-7%|
|Morehead State University||1,199||1,315||-9%|
|University of Kentucky||4,891||5,348||-9%|
|Northern Kentucky University||1,836||1,950||-6%|
|Eastern Kentucky University||2,271||2,349||-3%|
|Louisiana Tech University||1,864||2,050||-9%|
|University of Louisiana at Lafayette||2,338||2,536||-8%|
|Southeastern Louisiana University||2,580||2,727||-5%|
|Nicholls State University||1,200||1,242||-3%|
|University of Maine||2,059||2,140||-4%|
|Morgan State University||1,213||1,374||-12%|
|Loyola University Maryland||1,008||1,081||-7%|
|Johns Hopkins University||1,405||1,475||-5%|
|Bridgewater State University||1,389||1,611||-14%|
|University of Massachusetts Lowell||2,082||2,391||-13%|
|University of Massachusetts Amherst||5,055||5,766||-12%|
|Ferris State University||1,540||1,892||-19%|
|Central Michigan University||2,088||2,473||-16%|
|Northern Michigan University||1,360||1,610||-16%|
|Eastern Michigan University||1,922||2,152||-11%|
|Winona State University||1,282||1,555||-18%|
|Saint Cloud State University||1,022||1,237||-17%|
|University of Minnesota Duluth||1,780||2,043||-13%|
|University of St. Thomas||1,487||1,579||-6%|
|University of Minnesota Twin Cities||5,966||6,278||-5%|
|University of Southern Mississippi||1,675||1,888||-11%|
|Mississippi State University||3,223||3,500||-8%|
|University of Mississippi||3,024||3,232||-6%|
|Saint Louis University||1,542||1,902||-19%|
|University of Central Missouri||1,084||1,249||-13%|
|University of Missouri-Kansas City||1,059||1,196||-11%|
|Northwest Missouri State University||1,221||1,355||-10%|
|Missouri University of Science and Technology||1,111||1,145||-3%|
|The University of Montana||1,296||1,482||-13%|
|Montana State University||3,259||3,366||-3%|
|University of Nevada, Reno||3,351||3,547||-6%|
|University of New Hampshire||2,630||2,731||-4%|
|Seton Hall University||1,336||1,631||-18%|
|William Paterson University of New Jersey||1,263||1,537||-18%|
|New Jersey Institute of Technology||1,191||1,360||-12%|
|St. John’s University||2,082||3,135||-34%|
|John Jay College of Criminal Justice||1,692||2,056||-18%|
|New York City College of Technology||2,898||3,466||-16%|
|The New School||1,239||1,467||-16%|
|University of North Carolina Wilmington||2,025||2,342||-14%|
|Western Carolina University||1,823||2,107||-13%|
|University of North Carolina at Greensboro||2,432||2,746||-11%|
|North Carolina A&T State University||2,136||2,289||-7%|
|University of North Dakota||1,614||1,673||-4%|
|University of Toledo||2,363||3,037||-22%|
|Wright State University||1,181||1,374||-14%|
|University of Central Oklahoma||1,844||1,963||-6%|
|University of Oklahoma||4,422||4,523||-2%|
|Oklahoma State University||4,144||4,200||-1%|
|University of Oregon||3,920||4,525||-13%|
|Portland State University||1,515||1,674||-9%|
|Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania||1,593||1,992||-20%|
|Millersville University of Pennsylvania||1,160||1,334||-13%|
|Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania||1,463||1,580||-7%|
|Johnson & Wales University-Providence||1,219||1,479||-18%|
|Coastal Carolina University||2,056||2,304||-11%|
|University of South Carolina||5,742||6,286||-9%|
|University of South Dakota||1,232||1,321||-7%|
|South Dakota State University||2,087||2,123||-2%|
|Austin Peay State University||1,438||1,716||-16%|
|East Tennessee State University||1,651||1,786||-8%|
|Middle Tennessee State University||3,093||3,312||-7%|
|University of Memphis||2,541||2,683||-5%|
|Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi||1,555||1,915||-19%|
|The University of Texas at Dallas||3,476||4,073||-15%|
|Stephen F. Austin State University||1,764||2,062||-14%|
|Texas Woman’s University||1,130||1,301||-13%|
|Angelo State University||1,277||1,436||-11%|
|University of Vermont||2,487||2,636||-6%|
|Virginia Commonwealth University||3,756||4,401||-15%|
|Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University||6,608||7,651||-14%|
|Norfolk State University||1,066||1,225||-13%|
|Christopher Newport University||1,155||1,238||-7%|
|Central Washington University||1,723||2,172||-21%|
|Western Washington University||2,494||3,116||-20%|
|Eastern Washington University||1,534||1,826||-16%|
|Washington State University||4,191||4,812||-13%|
|West Virginia University||4,494||4,949||-9%|
|University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh||1,854||2,165||-14%|
|University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee||3,249||3,760||-14%|
|University of Wisconsin-Stout||1,332||1,491||-11%|
|University of Wisconsin-River Falls||1,088||1,203||-10%|
|University of Wyoming||1,424||1,760||-19%|
|Source: Student Loan Calculator analysis of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data from the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years. Researchers excluded colleges with enrollment figures below 1,000 in 2020-2021 and schools that saw enrollment rise in this period. Five schools were listed for each state when the full criteria were met — otherwise, we listed, however, many qualified. Three states — Hawaii, New Mexico, and Utah — didn’t have any schools that qualified to be listed.|
Tips on how to enroll in college
Enrolling in college can be intimidating if you don’t know what to expect along the way. Here’s what you need to do to enroll in a college of your choosing.
- Fill out an application: Before you enroll in a school, you’ll need to find out if you’ll be accepted. Visit the school’s website to determine what you’ll need to fill out, including an application. Many schools require that you write an essay as part of the process, and some will require you to submit your high school transcripts and test scores (such as the ACT or SAT).
- Wait for an acceptance letter: After you submit your application, the school will reach out to you as to whether you met their admission qualifications, often via an acceptance letter or email.
- Submit your financial aid: Once you’ve been accepted into a school, you must fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will allow you to calculate how much money in loans and grants you’ll be eligible to receive from the federal government, as well as how much may need to come out of pocket.
- Sign up for classes: After you’ve turned in your documents, you’ll get to the fun part: selecting your classes. Many schools typically provide guidance and have requirements for what classes first-year students will have to take. Your academic advisor may also be able to help you select which classes to take.
Student Loan Calculator researchers analyzed new enrollment data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to calculate changes between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years.
Researchers started with data from nearly 1,800 U.S. colleges — including public and private, two-year and four-year, and undergraduate and graduate. Researchers combined new enrollment figures at the school level to calculate state changes.
For our school-by-school look, researchers excluded colleges with new enrollment figures below 1,000 in 2020-2021. This list was limited to schools that saw a year-over-year decrease in enrollment.
NOTE: This study was updated May 3 to clearly state that Student Loan Calculator looked at new enrollment data rather than total enrollment data.