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Report shows increased online learning, lower enrollment at Northern Arizona University

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NAU Students Return For In Person Classes

Back at Northern Arizona University as move-in continues for the fall semester, students and families walk the campus in this August file photo.

The Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) is set to approve its fall 2021 enrollment report for the state’s three public universities in a meeting Thursday. 

George Raudenbush, ABOR’s director of institutional analysis, presented the report at a Nov. 4 meeting of the academic affairs and educational attainment committee. Northern Arizona University mostly followed statewide trends, despite a decrease in enrollment this year.

Fall enrollment had “reached an all-time high" across the state universities, according to the presentation. Enrollment has increased by 55.4% across the three universities over the past 10 years (adding 75,865 students for a current total of 212,714) and was up 4% from last year’s numbers.

The state outpaced growth in the United States overall, according to the report.

NAU reported an enrollment loss of 4.2% (or 1,066 fewer students) in fall 2021 compared to the previous fall. Since the fall of 2017, the university's enrollment has decreased 10.8% (or 2,977 students). The report shows undergraduate enrollment increasing at the university from 2012 through 2018, and then declining since 2020.

The most recent 21-day count shows 24,162 current NAU undergraduate students.

The number of graduate students at NAU has been rising since 2016, with 2022 reporting similar numbers to those reported in 2012 (4,549 in 2022 and 4,613 in 2012).

The report’s introduction indicated that ABOR does not expect the trend of increasing enrollment across the state to continue, due to declining Arizona birth rates during the Great Recession. It projected K-12 enrollment to begin declining no later than 2025, remaining flat in the meantime.

“Without increases in the percentage of Arizona high school graduates that choose to enroll in a four-year degree program, demographic reductions may impact Arizona’s long-term attainment levels,” the report said.

The increasing proportion of nonresident students at Arizona public universities was one of seven enrollment trends Raudenbush identified in his presentation.

The number of nonresident students increased 39.2% statewide since 2018 (an additional 30,195 students) compared to the 3.7% increase in students from Arizona (an increase of 3,771 students). Since the fall semester of 2020, resident enrollment has decreased by 0.7%, while nonresident enrollment has increased 9.2%.

This was also a trend at NAU, with the number of nonresident students increasing since 2018 (356 more students than in 2018, for a total of 9,948 in 2022), while the number of resident students decreased (from 21,310 in 2018 to 18,763 in 2022). Arizona residents still make up 65.8% of NAU’s undergraduate students as well as 60.2% of students in online degree programs at the university.

“The most striking thing,” Raudenbush said, “is Arizona’s leading the way into the online modality. That separates our institutions more than anything else from systems in other states, public universities across the country.”

The report attributed much of the increased enrollment in Arizona public universities to online programs.

Online enrollment across the three universities increased by 31,910 students since 2018 (81.6%), while on-campus enrollment increased by 2,056 students (1.4%). NAU's online enrollment remained at about the same level (5,640 in 2018 compared to 5,626 in 2022), while its on-campus enrollment decreased (25,362 in 2018 to 23,085 in 2022).

According to the report, 19.6% of NAU undergraduates are in online degree programs, and undergraduates make up 67% of online degrees.

The number of part-time students also increased, as did the number of first-time college students attending part time.

Raudenbush said NAU was counter-trend with its part-time student enrollment decreasing more than full-time students since 2018. Its percentage of first-time students attending the university part-time had a slightly larger decrease than those attending full-time (12% compared to 9.5% of full time students, though the number of first-time students attending full time is much higher overall).

All three universities continued to have significantly more full-time students, even with the increase in part-time attendance. NAU, for example, had 22,343 full-time students in 2022 compared to 6,368 part time.

Student demographics are also shifting, according to the report. All three universities reported increases in female and racially and ethnically diverse students, as well as in those 25 and older.

About two-thirds of NAU students are female (62.9% or 15,212 students) while one-third are part of a historically underrepresented student population, meaning Black, Hispanic, or Native American (31.5% or 7,617). A similar number of students are older than the age of 25 (30.3% or 7,324).

The largest demographic change at NAU came in student gender, with the number of female students remaining higher than the number of male students while experiencing a smaller decrease in enrollment (a 3.6% decrease in female enrollment compared to a 13.7% decrease in male enrollment since 2018). In its 21-day count, NAU reported 18,299 female students (from 18,989 in 2018) and 10,412 male students (from 12,062 in 2018).

NAU’s increase in students from underrepresented populations was much smaller (1.7% since fall 2017) and has remained steady over the past year (an 0.3% decrease since fall 2020).

The proportion of students aged 25 and older decreased at NAU since 2018, with the amount of students under twenty-five falling 5.2% to 21,387 and those 25 and older falling 13.7% to 7,324, despite decreasing by a similar number of students.

ABOR’s fall 2021 enrollment reports can be found at

College enrollment is dropping and community colleges are seeing the biggest declines. That's according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.The report shows undergraduate enrollment fell more than 3% this year. Researchers say this is part of the largest 2-year enrollment drop in decades.A previous report by the research center showed only 13% of college dropouts return within five years and even fewer graduate.This as President Joe Biden's long-sought goal of free community college appears to be a victim of cost-cutting in his social spending plan, dealing a major blow to his vision for a historic expansion of educational opportunity to all Americans.Advocates say the pandemic has taken a heavier toll on students at community colleges. Many juggle jobs, parenting and other responsibilities that took priority during the pandemic, and many were put on furlough or lost their jobs, putting tuition out of reach.Additional reporting by The Associated Press.


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