Preliminary Data Show First Rebound in Undergraduate Enrollment in Nearly a Decade

After nine years of undergraduate enrollment declines, first brought on by anticipated population and demographic changes in the state and then exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the Massachusetts public higher education system is seeing its first enrollment increase this fall, with most of the growth attributed to the community colleges and, across segments, to first-time students.

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Trend at System Level

According to the latest data on fall undergraduate, degree-seeking enrollment in the Massachusetts public higher education system, collected as preliminary estimates in October, fall 2023 enrollment is up nearly 3 percent from the prior fall, the first increase the system has seen since fall 2013. While the earlier, more gradual declines beginning in 2014 were expected due to population and demographic changes in the state, declines since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic have been much sharper, including a loss of nearly 12,000 students, or -6.9%, in fall 2020 alone. In contrast, this fall’s estimated enrollment level of 152,739 is an increase of over 4,000 students, or +2.9%, from fall 2022.

“Our administration is thrilled to hear that our efforts to expand access to higher education are showing results. Expanding access to higher education is critical for connecting students with the skills that are in demand by employers today and setting them on a path toward success in their future careers.”

—Governor Maura Healey

Trends at Community College, State University and UMass Segment Levels

Most of the system’s growth this fall comes from a substantial enrollment increase at the community colleges, who gained over 5,000 students, or +8.0%, in fall 2023. Among new community college students, categorized as either new first-time or new transfer students, the increase was even higher at +12.2%. Also notable is that every one of the 15 community colleges showed some degree of enrollment growth. This is a hopeful sign as the community college segment was the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. This fall’s increase to 67,351 nearly brings the segment back to its fall 2020 level of 67,685.

At the nine state universities, undergraduate enrollment is down by only 192 students, or -0.6%, this fall, after five years of more significant declines. In addition, new first-time student enrollment is up +3.5%, another hopeful sign that students are making their way back onto college paths. At the four University of Massachusetts (UMass) campuses, where the pandemic had the smallest impact on enrollment among the three segments, undergraduate enrollment is down by 538 students, or -1.0%, from the prior fall, and new first-time enrollment is down -0.4%. It should be noted, however, that the segment’s decline is largely driven by enrollment declines at the largest, flagship campus of UMass Amherst, where enrollment has generally been growing steadily for 20 years. In fact, the other UMass campuses are showing increases in either overall enrollment or new first-time enrollment or both.

More Data Available in Early 2024

The preliminary fall data collected in October allow only for high-level summary of enrollment by segment, institution, and student type. At the end of the fall term, campuses will submit detailed enrollment data to DHE, allowing for confirmation or update of the preliminary data, as well as in-depth analysis of:

  • Student race and ethnicity. While enrollment of White students has been declining steadily since 2009, enrollment of Black and Latinx students had a long period of growth wiped out by the pandemic. Some enrollment recovery among students of color began last year, so a key question is whether this trend has continued this fall.
  • Student age. With this fall’s implementation of MassReconnect, a program to make community college free for Massachusetts residents age 25 and over who don’t already have a degree, there is great interest in knowing whether there has been enrollment growth among this population.
  • Retention and completion. More detailed data will also allow DHE to calculate what percentage of students were retained from fall 2022 to fall 2023, as well as track graduation rates of earlier cohorts.

DHE will follow up with these analyses in early 2024.