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.
- 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%).
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.
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|
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%|
|3||Brigham Young University-Idaho||ID||8,949||39,145||337%|
|4||Savannah College of Art and Design||GA||4,923||14,840||201%|
|7||University of St. Thomas||MN||4,073||9,824||141%|
|9||University of the Incarnate Word||TX||3,702||8,175||121%|
|13||Worcester Polytechnic Institute||MA||3,874||6,894||78%|
|14||Stevens Institute of Technology||NJ||4,121||7,283||77%|
|18||Carnegie Mellon University||PA||8,514||14,180||67%|
|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%|
|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%|
|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%|
|40||University of Chicago||IL||12,531||17,452||39%|
|42||Wake Forest University||NC||6,173||8,495||38%|
|43||University of Denver||CO||9,444||12,931||37%|
|45||Loyola University Chicago||IL||12,605||17,159||36%|
|46||George Washington University||DC||20,527||27,814||35%|
|48||University of San Francisco||CA||7,917||10,636||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%|
|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%|
|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%|
|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%|
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.