Introduction and summary
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, higher education was facing a national decline in enrollment. From the 2014-15 to the 2018-19 academic year, annual undergraduate enrollment across all institutions of higher education fell by 1.25 million students, a decline of 5 percentage points. Moreover, during this time span, undergraduate enrollment in public colleges dropped by 425,000 students—a nearly 2.5 percent decline.
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Public higher education also hit an important inflection point during this period: 2017-18 was the first time that white students no longer constituted a majority of undergraduates in U.S. public colleges. Similarly, in 2018-19, there were 12 states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia where white students did not represent a majority of the undergraduate population at public colleges.
These statistics are a function of three divergent stories in undergraduate enrollment in public colleges, especially when compared with the prime college-aged