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27th Oct 2021

US and Australian enrolment trends point to longer-term impacts of pandemic

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • In the US, undergraduate enrolments are still in decline overall, but not for all categories of higher education institutions
  • US graduate enrolments increased by 2% this fall
  • Sharp decreases in enrolments in community colleges suggest that lower-income students may be delaying, if not forgoing, higher education
  • In Australia, recovery for the international education sector may be some ways off due to the “pipeline effect” where fewer commencements over the past couple of years will continue to reverberate

New enrolment data for the US illustrates that different kinds of institution are feeling the impact of the pandemic in unique ways – some institutions are recovering and even thriving while others are struggling to survive. Separate data for Australia highlights that the ongoing disruption of the traditional student pipeline into higher education means that universities will be coping with enrolment declines for some time.

The data sets paint a more nuanced picture of the recovery that can be expected in both countries.

A sharp divide between types of institution and level in the US

“First look” data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that undergraduate enrolments have dropped for the third year in a row across the higher education system: by 3.2% this fall, by 3.4% last fall, and cumulatively by 6.5% since fall 2019. The number of international undergraduate students fell by 8.2%.

Graduate enrolments are in better shape: they have grown by 2.1% since fall 2020 and in total have increased by 5.3% since fall 2019.

The growth of graduate enrolments is thanks in large part to international students, whose numbers grew by 13.1% year-over-year. Nurturing international enrolments will be crucial for US graduate programmes given that the number of American students entering higher education has been falling every year since 2010, a trend that could lead to a negative student pipeline effect (i.e., a disruption to the flow of new students that shows up later in higher levels of education).

But for now, graduate enrolments are rebounding in the US and undergraduate enrolments are not – with the exception of what’s happening at elite universities. Inside Higher Ed reports that, “highly selective private, non-profit institutions saw an 11.7% increase in freshman enrolments this fall, compared with an 8.7% decline last fall … overall, such institutions have netted a 2% freshman enrolment increase since fall 2019.”

Highly selective public institutions are also recovering, albeit more slowly, with a 1.2% increase in enrolments this fall versus a 5.6% decline in fall 2020. Across the board, both public and private institutions with less selective admissions processes saw some level of decline.

A big impact for community colleges

Community colleges are among the hardest hit by falling enrolments. A relatively large proportion of community colleges’ enrolment base comprises fewer wealthy students, many of whom – even before COVID – had to work while studying. Some of these students will have had no choice but to delay their studies during COVID in order to work full time.

An article in The Guardian notes that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on low-income and non-white Americans, populations that community colleges tend to serve, creat[ing] a plunge in community college attendance during the pandemic.” Commencements at community colleges were down more than 20% this fall compared with 2019 figures.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), roughly one-fifth of all international undergraduate students in the US study at a community college – almost 100,000 international students.

Australian pipeline under pressure

Australia’s borders are set to open soon to international students. While this is of course good news, the loss of so many student commencements across all sectors for close to two years will have a long-term impact on enrolments in the higher education system.

The number of international student visa holders in Australia has plummeted from 578,000 in October 2019 to 266,000 in October 2021. In other words, 300,000 fewer international students are now living in Australia – a 54% drop.

For years, Australia has been rightly admired for the strength of its cross-sectoral pipeline for international students – e.g., many students begin in English-language (ELICOS) programmes and then progress to VET or university studies. This pipeline has provided a steady – and even predictable – flow of students into higher education, and its importance is well illustrated in this example from The Conversation:

“For instance, in 2020, about 62% of Chinese international students completed a pathway course before enrolling in higher education for the first time. This partly explains why year-to-date enrolments of Chinese students at universities have fallen only 8% in 2021 compared to 2019, while the number of Chinese international students holding higher education visas has fallen by about 30%.

Many of the students now starting higher education courses were already working their way through the pipeline when borders closed. They have progressed from a pathway course to a higher education course. If new international students enrol once borders reopen, many of them will again need to progress through this pipeline.”

Even with a robust rebuilding of the pipeline, there is no reversing the fact that Australia has missed out on tens of thousands of international student commencements due to borders having been closed for so long.

Attracting students to specific programmes will be essential

The impact of fewer international students graduating from Australian universities in the next few years will be felt across the economy. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and reported in The Conversation, roughly 60% of the economic value of international education is a result of spending in the broader economy.” Just as importantly, international students fill crucial skills gaps in Australia’s various regions.

At the 2021 AIEC conference, a focal point of discussion was incentives and policies that would help to bring back international students in large numbers – and to programmes related to skills gaps in the economy. Many agreed that attractive post-study work rights policies and immigration opportunities were absolutely central to a recovery for Australian higher education.

James Cauchy, regional director of Australasia at IDP Education in Melbourne, summarises this line of thinking well in an article he wrote for Times Higher Education:

“With the opening of the Australian border now finally on the horizon, policy settings could help bridge [skills] gaps by providing additional employment incentives for international students who choose to study in the sectors in which Australia is in particular need of skilled workers. In our survey, almost two-thirds (64%) of students considering studying science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine, allied health or hospitality courses in countries other than Australia said that migration incentives would bring Australia into their consideration. And this was also the case for 56% of students in the hugely important Indian market.”

For additional background, please see:

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