Report: Wisconsin colleges and universities see smaller enrollment declines than neighboring states

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates show overall drop of less than one-half percent

Milwaukee Area Technical College students celebrate their graduation in December 2019
Milwaukee Area Technical College students celebrate their graduation in December 2019. Like many U.S. colleges and universities, MATC saw a large drop in enrollment due to COVID-19. Photo courtesy of MATC

Enrollment across Wisconsin’s public and private colleges fell slightly last fall, with larger declines reported in all neighboring states, according to new national data. A deeper look at Wisconsin numbers show notable gains at the state’s technical colleges and sizable drops across private universities.

Survey data from Wisconsin colleges published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show statewide enrollment dropped by around 0.5 percent, or 1,118 students, during the fall semester. The year-over-year decline was far less notable than it was during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when enrollment fell by around 10,000 students or 3.3 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2020.

Within that total, the center’s report shows undergraduate numbers grew by almost 1 percent across the state’s higher education sectors, while enrollment among graduate students fell by around 7.5 percent.

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College enrollment has been declining fairly steadily in Wisconsin and across the U.S. over the past decade. Analysts have pointed to lower birthrates as a cause, and in Wisconsin, a smaller percentage of high school graduates have been enrolling at public universities since 2017.

As a region, the Midwest reported the largest enrollment decline of just more than 1 percent. During a briefing Wednesday, the center’s Executive Research Director, Doug Shapiro, said analysts have been anticipating the number of traditional, college-aged adults to decline nationwide due to fewer students entering and graduating from high school. He said those projections have shown the most significant drops would come from the Midwest and Northeast.

“Those regions have been experiencing declines in the numbers of college-age students that are kind of leading the coming wave of declines that will be we’ll be seeing more nationally in the next few years,” Shapiro said.

Nationally, overall enrollment at colleges and universities fell by around 1 percent, or 132,128 students, according to the Clearinghouse report. Shapiro said one bright spot is the number of new freshmen enrollments last fall across the U.S. According to the center’s report, freshmen enrollment across all colleges and universities grew by more than 4 percent.

“So, this is a very promising sign for higher education,” Shapiro said. “After two straight years in which the number of new entering students sat at 10 percent below pre-pandemic levels, it’s very encouraging to start seeing signs of a recovery here, even though there’s still a long way to go before freshmen classes return to their 2019 levels.”

Wisconsin fared slightly better with overall college enrollment than all of its neighbors. Minnesota colleges reported a decline of more than 4 percent. Iowa reported a 1.5 percent enrollment decline, and Illinois and Michigan both saw enrollment fall by half a percentage point.

When broken down further, Wisconsin’s higher education enrollment data reveals interesting trends. For example, enrollment at public two-year colleges, a sector mostly consisting of Wisconsin’s technical colleges, grew by nearly 8 percent, according to the Clearinghouse data. That represents 7,513 students last fall compared to fall 2021.

Enrollment at tech colleges has seen major swings throughout the pandemic. The latest data from the Wisconsin Technical College System show 10 percent growth during the 2021-2022 school year. That was preceded by a 13 percent decline during the 2020-2021 academic year. WTCS enrollments have yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

The largest annual decline in college enrollments came from Wisconsin’s private, non-profit, four-year universities, which saw a drop of more than 12 percent, or 6,008 students, according to the Clearinghouse estimates.

Enrollment data from Marquette University, the state’s largest private college, bucked the overall trend with a decline of just more than 1 percent from fall 2021 to fall 2022.

Wisconsin’s public, four-year universities saw enrollment fall by around 2 percent or 2,600 students according to the estimates. University of Wisconsin System enrollment data show a decline of closer to one percent between fall 2021 and fall 2022.