Student Enrollment Rises the Most in New Hampshire, Least in Alaska — Plus the Colleges With the Biggest Growth

 August 25, 2021
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The number of students enrolled in postsecondary education increased from 15.3 million in 2000 to an estimated 19.7 million in 2019 — a jump of 29%.

In that same period, 22 states saw higher growth in student enrollment, led by New Hampshire and Utah. And further, at the institution level, each of the 50 largest private universities saw higher growth, along with 17 of the 50 largest public universities.

Student Loan Hero analysts looked at student enrollment changes between 2000 and 2019 — the latest available data — to find the states and schools that are taking on more students.

Key findings

  • New Hampshire has seen the highest student enrollment growth since 2000. Enrollment at postsecondary institutions is up 174% in the Granite State, ahead of Utah (133%) by 41 percentage points. In third is Idaho, with an 86% jump.
  • Alaska has seen the largest reduction in student enrollment since 2000. In the Last Frontier, enrollment is down 16%. Alaska is one of only three states — including Michigan (down 7%) and Illinois (down 3%) — where enrollment has declined.
  • Each of the 50 largest private schools saw their enrollment rise in this period. Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester towers the other schools on the list with a 2,376% increase. Next closest is Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., at 1,282%.
  • 17 of the 50 largest public schools saw enrollment increase by more than the 29% national rate of growth. This was led by two schools that saw increases of at least 100%: Penn State University in State College, Pa. (125%), and the University of Central Florida in Orlando (106%).

College students flock to New Hampshire; Southern enrollment growth may have peaked

Live free or … go to college? New Hampshire has seen the largest increase in student enrollment at its colleges and universities since 2000.

The state home to such institutions as Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire saw enrollment jump 174% since 2000. Much of the growth occurred somewhat recently as New Hampshire saw enrollment grow by 124% from 2010 to 2019.

Utah and Idaho follow New Hampshire with enrollment growth of 133% and 86%, respectively. Arizona sneaks in the No. 4 spot before Southern states fill out the rest of the top 10.

Among the 10 states that saw the biggest enrollment increases from 2000 to 2019, Texas stands out as the only Southern state that also saw enrollment increase from 2010 to 2019. In fact, only five states and the District of Columbia saw enrollment increase in this period.

Drops in enrollment in 43 states between 2010 and 2019 suggest enrollment growth may have peaked in the first decade of the 2000s.

Students see the Last Frontier as a last resort

As it turns out, college students might not want to spend their undergrad years in the tundra. Despite so much room to grow in the nation’s largest state by area, enrollment in Alaska colleges and universities fell by 16% — the largest decrease of any state — from 2000 to 2019.

Though enrollment did increase by 24% from 2000 to 2010, a whopping 33% decrease from 2010 to 2019 brought Alaska’s enrollment below 2000 levels.

Perhaps snow helps deter would-be students as Michigan — with winters that can be nearly as snowy as Alaska — falls second-to-last in the rankings with a 7% enrollment drop since 2000. The only other state to see a net negative enrollment from 2000 to 2019, Illinois lost 3% of its student population.

States where enrollment grew the least, 2000-2019
Rank State % change 2000-2019 % change 2010-2019
1 Alaska -16% -33%
2 Michigan -7% -25%
3 Illinois -3% -21%
4 Hawaii 0% -23%
5 Rhode Island 6% -6%
6 Wyoming 8% -15%
7 Oklahoma 8% -16%
8 Wisconsin 8% -13%
9 Louisiana 9% -8%
10 New Mexico 10% -25%

College students may be leaning toward private schools

While college enrollment is up 29% nationally since 2000, private institutions appear to be growing faster than public schools. All 50 of the largest private schools saw enrollment rise faster than the national rate from 2000 to 2019, while just 17 of the 50 largest public schools can say the same. Further, the largest private schools grew enrollment by an average 143%, compared with a meager 27% across the largest public schools.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) leads the pack with an explosive 2,376% increase in student enrollment. As of 2019, 113,514 undergraduate and graduate students — most of whom attend online — make SNHU the largest university in the country by enrollment. SNHU not only leads private colleges in enrollment growth, but its increase also exceeds all 50 of the largest public schools.

Liberty University in Virginia follows SNHU in the private school ranking, having grown its student population by 1,282% from 2000 to 2019. Most of Liberty’s students enroll in online classes exclusively. Brigham Young University in Idaho more than tripled enrollment in this period, but its 337% growth rate gets dwarfed by the two schools growing faster.

50 largest U.S. private colleges and universities, ranked by enrollment growth 2000-2019
Rank School State Total enrollment, 2000 Total enrollment, 2019 Percentage change
1 Southern New Hampshire University NH 4,584 113,514 2,376%
2 Liberty University VA 6,192 85,586 1,282%
3 Brigham Young University-Idaho ID 8,949 39,145 337%
4 Savannah College of Art and Design GA 4,923 14,840 201%
5 Columbia College MO 3,340 9,913 197%
6 Wilmington University DE 5,298 14,730 178%
7 University of St. Thomas MN 4,073 9,824 141%
8 Chapman University CA 4,353 9,850 126%
9 University of the Incarnate Word TX 3,702 8,175 121%
10 Cornell University NY 12,043 24,027 100%
11 Baker College MI 3,896 7,606 95%
12 Drexel University PA 13,128 24,205 84%
13 Worcester Polytechnic Institute MA 3,874 6,894 78%
14 Stevens Institute of Technology NJ 4,121 7,283 77%
15 Rice University TX 4,205 7,282 73%
16 Elon University NC 4,138 7,088 71%
17 Pace University NY 7,911 13,395 69%
18 Carnegie Mellon University PA 8,514 14,180 67%
19 Brandman University CA 6,145 10,231 66%
20 Gonzaga University WA 4,548 7,537 66%
21 University of Southern California CA 29,194 48,321 66%
22 Long Island University NY 9,627 15,546 61%
23 University of Indianapolis IN 3,599 5,801 61%
24 Sacred Heart University CT 5,684 9,156 61%
25 Columbia University in the City of New York NY 19,639 31,456 60%
26 Georgetown University DC 12,427 19,593 58%
27 University of New Haven CT 4,349 6,793 56%
28 Johns Hopkins University MD 17,774 27,079 52%
29 University of Rochester NY 8,071 12,233 52%
30 Quinnipiac University CT 6,477 9,708 50%
31 Biola University CA 4,092 6,103 49%
32 Lewis University IL 4,304 6,359 48%
33 Touro College NY 8,092 11,631 44%
34 Azusa Pacific University CA 6,497 9,297 43%
35 New York University NY 37,150 52,885 42%
36 Texas Christian University TX 7,775 11,024 42%
37 Florida Institute of Technology FL 4,248 6,022 42%
38 Creighton University NE 6,237 8,821 41%
39 Excelsior College NY 18,067 25,245 40%
40 University of Chicago IL 12,531 17,452 39%
41 Lindenwood University MO 6,056 8,392 39%
42 Wake Forest University NC 6,173 8,495 38%
43 University of Denver CO 9,444 12,931 37%
44 Duke University NC 12,192 16,686 37%
45 Loyola University Chicago IL 12,605 17,159 36%
46 George Washington University DC 20,527 27,814 35%
47 Adelphi University NY 5,908 7,991 35%
48 University of San Francisco CA 7,917 10,636 34%
49 Brown University RI 7,723 10,333 34%
50 Washington University in St. Louis MO 12,118 16,191 34%

Enrollment at public colleges and universities has been growing at a much less dramatic rate, with the fastest-growing — Penn State University-Main Campus — increasing enrollment by 125% over the 20-year period.

Unlike private colleges, just two public schools saw enrollment increase by more than 100%. The University of Central Florida saw enrollment increase by 106% since 2000. Florida International University ranks as the next fastest-growing public school with an 84% enrollment increase.

50 largest U.S. public colleges and universities, ranked by enrollment growth 2000-2019
Rank School State Total enrollment, 2000 Total enrollment, 2019 Percentage change
1 Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus PA 40,571 91,427 125%
2 University of Central Florida FL 33,713 69,402 106%
3 Florida International University FL 31,945 58,711 84%
4 Valencia College FL 27,565 47,940 74%
5 Texas A&M University-College Station TX 44,026 68,726 56%
6 University of North Texas TX 27,054 39,336 45%
7 University of Cincinnati-Main Campus OH 27,327 39,263 44%
8 University of Houston TX 32,123 46,148 44%
9 California State University-Fullerton CA 28,381 40,445 43%
10 Rutgers University-New Brunswick NJ 35,236 50,173 42%
11 University of California-Berkeley CA 31,277 43,185 38%
12 California State University-Northridge CA 29,066 39,910 37%
13 Temple University PA 28,355 38,794 37%
14 San Jose State University CA 26,698 36,085 35%
15 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign IL 38,465 51,605 34%
16 University of Washington-Seattle Campus WA 36,139 47,576 32%
17 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University VA 27,869 36,383 31%
18 University of Arizona AZ 34,488 44,577 29%
19 University of Colorado Boulder CO 29,352 37,883 29%
20 Ohio State University-Main Campus OH 47,952 61,391 28%
21 North Carolina State University at Raleigh NC 28,619 36,304 27%
22 University of Michigan-Ann Arbor MI 38,103 48,090 26%
23 California State University-Long Beach CA 30,918 38,674 25%
24 Florida State University FL 33,971 42,450 25%
25 Colorado State University-Fort Collins CO 26,807 33,426 25%
26 University of South Florida-Main Campus FL 35,561 44,246 24%
27 University of Georgia GA 31,288 38,920 24%
28 University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus PA 26,329 32,686 24%
29 University of Maryland-College Park MD 33,189 40,743 23%
30 Arizona State University-Tempe AZ 44,126 53,286 21%
31 University of California-Los Angeles CA 36,890 44,371 20%
32 Indiana University-Bloomington IN 37,076 43,260 17%
33 University of Florida FL 45,114 52,407 16%
34 Michigan State University MI 43,366 49,809 15%
35 Purdue University-Main Campus IN 39,667 45,500 15%
36 The University of Tennessee-Knoxville TN 25,890 29,460 14%
37 College of Southern Nevada NV 29,905 33,942 13%
38 University of Minnesota-Twin Cities MN 45,481 51,327 13%
39 San Diego State University CA 31,609 35,544 12%
40 University of Iowa IA 28,311 31,240 10%
41 Miami Dade College FL 46,834 51,679 10%
42 University of Wisconsin-Madison WI 40,658 44,257 9%
43 San Francisco State University CA 26,826 29,032 8%
44 Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis IN 27,525 29,537 7%
45 The University of Texas at Austin TX 49,996 51,090 2%
46 Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College LA 31,527 31,756 1%
47 Santa Monica College CA 27,868 27,497 -1%
48 Wayne State University MI 30,408 26,824 -12%
49 Western Michigan University MI 28,657 21,470 -25%
50 Central Michigan University MI 26,845 19,362 -28%

Private vs. public colleges: Is there a better option?

At a time when many are paying close attention to the student debt crisis, it might come as a surprise to see enrollment at public colleges — which are often more affordable than private schools — growing at such slower relative rates.

A recent Student Loan Hero study found that tuition at private and public schools is growing at nearly the same rate, so it’s possible more students are looking beyond local public colleges to find the right education for them at the right price. If a student finds that it will cost the same to attend a small specialized private college as it would to attend a large state school, plenty of students would likely take the former option.

“Private schools benefit from reputation and legacy, to be sure, but they’re also more likely in many cases to have an intimate feel, where students and faculty in smaller numbers work side by side in specific fields,” Student Loan Hero senior writer Andrew Pentis says. “In a country that’s working toward specialization in education, it’s no surprise that the general education of a public four-year university might pale in comparison.”

When it comes to paying for college, each student and their family’s situation is unique and there are different benefits and drawbacks to financial assistance at private and public schools.

“Private schools might be limited in what federal financial assistance they can offer, but a private school could have more leeway to provide school-sponsored gift aid,” Pentis says.

In fact, some private schools attract students with “no-loan” policies where the schools replace federal and private loans included in a student’s aid package with grants, scholarships or work-study opportunities. On the contrary, state financial aid grants may be limited to in-state or public institutions depending on each grant’s eligibility requirements.

Students comparing financial aid packages from multiple colleges can use Student Loan Hero’s financial aid award calculator to see which school is offering the best deal.

Published in Research