Essay Trends in Enrollment Growth at Public Flagship Universities
An Essay for the Learning Curve
Joydeep Roy, Jingyi Su
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Public state colleges and universities educate most undergraduate degree earners in the US, and enrollment demographics have changed, in some ways reflecting nationwide demographic changes. But over the past two decades, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, overall undergraduate enrollment growth in the nation’s 50 public flagships has lagged compared with increases in the number of high school graduates and overall college attendance. Though some state flagships, especially those in the South, have quickly expanded over 20 years, several of the most-selective public flagship universities have not seen significant enrollment increases. Given the pandemic’s impact on overall enrollment rates and the importance of these flagships in promoting economic mobility, understanding trends in flagship enrollment is key to evaluating college access.

Key Findings

  • The 50 US public flagships increased their total student enrollment by 24 percent between 2000 and 2018.
  • In 2000, undergraduate enrollment was 9 percent Asian, 6 percent Black, 5 percent Hispanic, and 80 percent white; by 2018, enrollment was 11 percent Asian, 6 percent Black, 11 percent Hispanic, and 67 percent white.
  • The most-selective public flagships’ undergraduate enrollment increased 18 percent over 18 years, from 254,214 students in fall 2000 to 299,353 students in fall 2018.
  • Only 63 percent of the average US public flagship’s freshmen in fall 2018 were state residents, compared with about 75 percent in fall 2000. The flagships that expanded the most between 2000 and 2018 witnessed the largest declines in their share of in-state students.
  • In fall 2018, 6 percent of students at public flagships were international students, an increase from less than 3 percent of students in fall 2000.


Though enrollment has increased among some student populations, overall trends show that enrollment rates have stagnated. This is noticeable with Hispanic students and especially Black students, whose overall enrollment remained the same from 2000 to 2018; gains in high school graduation were not reflected in flagship enrollment. And among the flagships where enrollment grew, there was often a surge in out-of-state students, raising questions about access to high-quality postsecondary options for in-state students from middle- and low-income families.

With the decrease of in-state students and large and persistent gaps in Black and Hispanic representation at many of these campuses, how these flagships offset enrollment losses is uncertain. To address the stagnant growth, policymakers could consider programs that recruit academically promising low-income students and provide scholarships and targeted support services, areas that often serve as barriers to enrollment. Another possibility is increasing test-optional policies, which can have a positive impact on schools’ racial and economic diversity. But with the pandemic continuing to affect overall enrollment, it is important that flagships ensure they are invested in enrolling and educating in-state residents of all means and backgrounds.

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Additional Resources

Tags Higher education Racial equity in education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
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