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Michigan college enrollment decline among worst in the nation

Students walk on the campus of the University of Michigan on a sunny day, with Burton Memorial Tower in the background.
Spring enrollment in Michigan colleges fell more than 2 percent this year, far steeper than the nation as a whole. (Spiroview Inc /
  • New spring 2023 college enrollment data shows Michigan’s decline worse than national
  • When comparing spring 2019 to spring 2023, Michigan has a 20.7 enrollment decline at the two-year college level 
  • State leaders say they want to increase college enrollment and completion

Michigan’s colleges and universities suffered enrollment drops four times steeper than the nation as a whole this year, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

And the decline was not a one-year aberration.


Since 2019, the year before COVID-19 hit the U.S., only Alaska and Mississippi reported bigger drop offs in college-going levels than Michigan, according to the research center. 


Spring enrollment this year fell 2.2 percent over 2022. Nationally, college enrollment dropped 0.5 percent over that same period.

Overall college enrollment in the state this spring stood at 417,216, down more than 75,000 students from 2019, meaning Michigan is still at 85 percent of 2019 levels, ranking 48th among U.S. states. 


The latest numbers underscore the headwinds Michigan faces in its effort to expand the state’s economy and population. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other leaders have sought to increase college enrollment and completion and create a market that attracts companies as well as workers who want to live in Michigan

“We’re still trying to get our baseline back from pre-pandemic levels,” said Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, which represents the state’s 15 public universities. “That could be a tough hill to climb just because of the forecasted number of high school graduates.” 

Part of the challenge is demography, with the state’s aging population meaning a dwindling pool of high school graduates. In 2022, roughly 95,000 students graduated from Michigan high schools, down 3.1 percent since 2019, according to state graduation data. In 2010, there were nearly 105,000 high school graduates in Michigan. 

At the same time, the percentage of high school graduates who enrolled in a two- or four-year college within six months of graduation also declined, showing that it’s not just fewer graduates but also more of them who don’t have college in their near-term plans. 

The report, released last week, includes enrollment information from public two-year schools, public and private four-year schools, and also schools that primarily award two-year associate degrees but offer baccalaureate degrees, and some other schools. (Some Michigan community colleges do offer four-year degrees for a small number of programs but it’s unclear how those schools were counted in this report. The National Student Clearinghouse did not provide that information to Bridge Michigan on Tuesday. 

If there was a note of optimism in the numbers, it was that this spring’s 2.2 percent drop was smaller than the 5.1 percent drop last year and the 6.6 percent drop in 2021.  

That’s somewhat promising to Audrey Peek, the senior government policy and data analyst at the American Council on Education. The organization represents two- and four-year public and private schools across the country. 

“I think the headline here for the country and for Michigan is that enrollment is declining but we're recovering from the major disruptions that we saw during the early part of the pandemic,” Peek said. 

Even so, comparisons to the state’s pre-pandemic college numbers remain stark. 

Michigan public two-year colleges suffered a 20.7 percent enrollment decline this spring compared to spring 2019 (the decline was 19.5 percent nationally). 

For public four-year universities, there was a 9.6 percent decline (compared to 2.6 percent nationally) and for private nonprofit four-year schools, there was a 13.2 percent decline (3.1 percent nationally).


The decline in state community college numbers since 2019 is “huge,” said Erica Orians, vice president of the Michigan Community College Association (MCCA). 

“I think that a lot of students are making a choice between going to work and going to college,” she said, but “those two things can co-exist together.” 

Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a nonprofit think tank focused on increasing the state’s prosperity and increasing college-going culture, told Bridge that college enrollment data matters to schools but he is more concerned about two other metrics: 

  • What is the rate of high school graduates going to college and actually completing a four-year degree, and 
  • What is the rate of degree-earners who stay in Michigan once they’ve graduated? 

Generally, those with four-year degrees earn more per year than those without a post-high-school degree

“We’re under concentrated in the knowledge economy and we’re under concentrated in college graduates,” Glazer said. 


Last summer, the then-Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Whitmer created a new scholarship program for the high school class of 2023 that helps students pay to attend a two or four year school in Michigan

Hurley said that program has a “decent shot of turning (up) the dial in the high school pipeline.” 

The state has also invested in the Michigan Reconnect program, which pays for the tuition costs of adults 25 and older who want to attend community college in their district. Whitmer is advocating for the state to lower the minimum age of participation to people 21 and older

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