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Where Student Enrollment Has Grown the Most in the Past 20 Years, By State and College (and How Tuition Has Changed)

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Expensive as it is, most American high school graduates pursue a college education these days. Over the 20 years between 2002 and 2021, the most recent data available, enrollment at American postsecondary institutions grew by 12.3%.

However, this figure varies widely depending on location. During the same period, 13 states saw a drop in enrollment, while the leading state, New Hampshire, saw enrollment nearly triple.

The latest LendingTree analysis looked at student enrollment by state and institution, including public and private colleges and universities. Across the board, costs are on the rise, having more than doubled over the decades studied.

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Key findings

  • Enrollment at postsecondary institutions in New Hampshire nearly tripled between 2002 and 2021. The state saw the highest enrollment growth in this period — 189.6% — followed by Utah (118.0%) and Idaho (75.3%).
  • Alaska saw the most significant drop in enrollment in this period. The state was one of 13 where enrollment dropped between 2002 and 2021 — the latest year for which data was available. Alaska saw a 29.2% decline in this period, followed by Michigan (down 20.5%) and Illinois (down 13.0%).
  • In the 20 years we analyzed, the 50 largest private colleges saw enrollment grow slightly faster than the 50 largest public colleges. Between 2002 and 2021, enrollment at these private colleges grew 24.1%, versus 21.0% among the public colleges. Brigham Young University-Idaho registered the biggest private jump (314.0%), while the Lone Star College System in Texas saw the biggest public increase (116.6%).
  • The cost of tuition, fees, and room and board more than doubled for undergraduates at public and private four-year colleges in the same period. Costs jumped 131.9% at public schools — from $9,199 to $21,337 — and 101.6% at private schools — from $22,968 to $46,313. Kentucky saw the biggest public jump (202.8%), while Texas (174.3%) saw the biggest private jump between 2002 and 2021.

New Hampshire, Utah, Idaho have seen largest enrollment increases over 20 years

Between 2002 and 2021, college enrollment across the U.S. rose 12.3% overall. But there’s more to the story than a steady increase.

The years between 2002 and 2011 saw a growth spurt in enrollment — 26.5%, to be exact — but enrollment decreased by 11.2% in the latter half of the studied period from 2011 to 2021. This trend may highlight a tension: While a college education has become a basic prerequisite for most jobs, increasing costs have made it harder to attain affordably, especially in light of economic changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, the business of college is booming in some states. Over the period analyzed, New Hampshire saw a 189.6% increase in enrollment, with the bulk of it — 156.3% — happening more recently, between 2011 and 2021. With more than 15 baccalaureate institutions, the Granite State has plenty of options for students to explore, including its resident Ivy League school, Dartmouth. New Hampshire also enjoyed the lowest rise in the cost of private tuition, fees, and room and board of any U.S. state over the 20 years analyzed, making it a savvy choice for budget-conscious grads.

States with the biggest student enrollment increases

RankState2002 enrollment2021 enrollment% change 2002 to 2021
1New Hampshire68,523198,460189.6%

Source: LendingTree analysis of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data.

Utah and Idaho came in second and third, with enrollment increases of 118.0% and 75.3%, respectively. These figures likely reflect — though not dependent entirely upon — the increase in enrollment in the Brigham Young University system, including its Idaho campus.

Alaska, Michigan, Illinois among 13 states with enrollment decreases over 20 years

On the other end of the spectrum, 13 states saw a drop in enrollment over the studied period — four of which were in the double digits. The Last Frontier state led the charge. Having already been a last resort for college hopefuls — less than 30,000 students signed up for a subarctic education in 2002 — Alaska saw a 29.2% drop in enrollment over the 20 years studied. Curiously, enrollment increased during the first decade studied, rising 18.2% between 2002 and 2011 but falling sharply by 40.1% between 2011 and 2021.

States with the biggest student enrollment decreases

RankState2002 enrollment2021 enrollment% change 2002 to 2021

Source: LendingTree analysis of IPEDS data.

Michigan saw the second steepest drop in enrollment at 20.5%, and Illinois came in third with a 13.0% drop. All three states share brutal winters in common, so it’d be tempting to say weather is a deterrent to would-be students — but New Hampshire, Utah and Idaho get cold, too. Other factors are likely at play. For instance, Michigan’s population has aged as a whole in recent years — according to nonprofit news site Bridge Michigan — meaning there are fewer high school graduates.

Full rankings

States with the biggest student enrollment increases/decreases

RankState2002 enrollment2021 enrollment% change 2002 to 2021
1New Hampshire68,523198,460189.6%
5West Virginia93,723132,28041.1%
11North Carolina447,335555,82424.3%
17South Carolina202,007235,08616.4%
23North Dakota45,80050,96811.3%
27District of Columbia91,01499,4359.3%
31South Dakota47,75151,2657.4%
32New Jersey361,733380,8825.3%
34New York1,112,2161,153,0833.7%
41Rhode Island77,41774,636-3.6%
48New Mexico120,997107,098-11.5%

Source: LendingTree analysis of IPEDS data.

Enrollment at 50 largest private colleges has grown at slightly faster pace than 50 largest public colleges — here’s a full list

While it’s well documented that private schools tend to be even more expensive than public ones — at least at first glance — students still enroll in them with regularity. Over the last 20 years, the growth of private college enrollment (24.1%) has slightly edged out that of public school enrollment (21%) in a study of the 50 largest public and private schools as of 2002.

And although public schools may have a lower sticker price, many private schools offer robust financial aid packages — often including grants that don’t need to be repaid, LendingTree student loan expert Michael Kitchen says. “Aid packages can vary widely among schools, and the actual cost doesn’t always depend on whether it’s public or private,” he adds.

The private school that saw the highest increase in enrollment (an astronomical 314.0%) was Brigham Young University-Idaho, in the town of Rexburg. Along with the continued growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — which is 50% larger today than in 2000, according to church estimates via The Economist — the school gained baccalaureate status in 2001 after a lengthy history as a two-year institution known as Ricks College, which may account for the deluge in enrollments.

Overall, the top 10 list of private schools with the highest enrollment increases is peppered with Ivy League colleges and other prestigious institutions, including Cornell (103.6%), Johns Hopkins (78.2%), Columbia (64.1%) and Georgetown (62.8%). However, 13 private schools saw an enrollment dip over the same period. The most affected schools include Missouri’s Webster University, whose enrollment dipped by 60.7%, and Colorado’s Regis University, whose enrollment was slashed in half.

50 largest private colleges by enrollment change

RankSchoolState2002 enrollment2021 enrollment% change 2002 to 2021
1Brigham Young University-IdahoID10,70144,304314.0%
2Cornell UniversityNY12,56625,582103.6%
3Johns Hopkins UniversityMD17,98932,04978.2%
4Columbia University in the City of New YorkNY20,58333,77664.1%
5Georgetown UniversityDC12,85620,93562.8%
6University of Southern CaliforniaCA30,68249,31860.7%
7New York UniversityNY38,09658,22652.8%
8Baylor UniversityTX14,15920,62645.7%
9University of ChicagoIL13,17718,83242.9%
10Long Island UniversityNY10,64415,19142.7%
11Drexel UniversityPA16,34523,21642.0%
12Duke UniversityNC12,48817,62041.1%
13American UniversityDC11,05214,85234.4%
14Loyola University ChicagoIL13,06117,49834.0%
15Northwestern UniversityIL17,52823,40933.6%
16Washington University in St. LouisMO12,76716,97332.9%
17Vanderbilt UniversityTN10,71213,79628.8%
18Yale UniversityCT11,37814,56728.0%
19University of MiamiFL14,97819,09627.5%
20Emory UniversityGA11,60014,77927.4%
21Harvard UniversityMA24,96931,34525.5%
22Boston UniversityMA28,98236,10424.6%
23University of PennsylvaniaPA22,76928,03823.1%
24Northeastern UniversityMA23,35728,16720.6%
25Fordham UniversityNY14,31816,98618.6%
26Syracuse UniversityNY18,60421,77217.0%
27University of Notre DameIN11,31113,13916.2%
28Tulane University of LouisianaLA12,20614,04715.1%
29George Washington UniversityDC23,01926,45714.9%
30Rochester Institute of TechnologyNY14,63416,79014.7%
30Howard UniversityDC10,51712,06514.7%
32Southern Methodist UniversityTX10,95512,38513.1%
33Boston CollegeMA14,11115,57710.4%
34Brigham Young UniversityUT32,40834,8117.4%
35Villanova UniversityPA10,47310,8703.8%
36Marquette UniversityWI11,04211,3202.5%
37St. John's University-New YorkNY19,28819,6581.9%
38Nova Southeastern UniversityFL21,61920,898-3.3%
39Stanford UniversityCA18,29717,680-3.4%
40Saint Louis UniversityMO14,00413,474-3.8%
41National UniversityCA17,86517,135-4.1%
42Pace UniversityNY14,09613,479-4.4%
43DePaul UniversityIL23,22721,670-6.7%
44Saint Leo UniversityFL10,7149,523-11.1%
45Excelsior CollegeNY20,49217,166-16.2%
46University of St. ThomasMN11,2579,336-17.1%
47Hofstra UniversityNY13,41210,243-23.6%
48Touro CollegeNY15,94111,222-29.6%
49Regis UniversityCO11,4475,566-51.4%
50Webster UniversityMO17,2496,779-60.7%

Source: LendingTree analysis of IPEDS data. Note: School names are listed based on IPEDS entries.

Although at a slightly lower overall rate than private colleges, public college enrollment has grown over the past two decades. Texas’s Lone Star College System leads the way with a 116.6% increase in enrollment. (Note: The system comprises seven full-sized campuses along with satellite locations. So this figure more accurately represents growth across a family of schools rather than an individual institution, but we included it based on IPEDS’ categorization.)

Other Southern schools also feature heavily in the top 10 list of public universities with the best enrollment growth rates. Three of the 10 are in Florida (University of Central Florida in Orlando at 82.6%, Florida International University in Miami at 69.9% and Valencia College in Orlando at 47.7%). And another two after the Lone Star College System are in Texas (Texas A&M University-College Station at 60.9% and University of North Texas in Denton at 40.6%). Nine public schools, however, saw decreased enrollment, with Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo seeing a drop of 38.6%.

50 largest public colleges by enrollment change

RankSchoolState2002 enrollment2021 enrollment% change 2002 to 2021
1Lone Star College SystemTX31,69268,653116.6%
2University of Central FloridaFL38,50170,31082.6%
3Florida International UniversityFL33,34956,66469.9%
4Arizona State University Campus ImmersionAZ47,35977,88164.4%
5Texas A&M University-College StationTX45,08372,53060.9%
6Valencia CollegeFL29,51543,59947.7%
7Rutgers University-New BrunswickNJ35,88650,80441.6%
8University of Illinois Urbana-ChampaignIL39,99956,60741.5%
9University of North TexasTX30,18342,44140.6%
10University of California-DavisCA29,08740,05037.7%
11University of HoustonTX34,44347,03136.5%
12University of California-BerkeleyCA33,14545,03635.9%
13University of Washington-Seattle CampusWA39,88252,43431.5%
14University of ArizonaAZ36,84748,27431.0%
15University of Michigan-Ann ArborMI38,97250,27829.0%
16University of South FloridaFL38,85449,70827.9%
17California State University-FullertonCA32,14340,73826.7%
18Purdue University-Main CampusIN40,11750,34425.5%
19Florida State UniversityFL36,21045,13024.6%
20North Carolina State University at RaleighNC29,63736,83124.3%
21Ohio State University-Main CampusOH49,67661,67724.2%
22University of Colorado BoulderCO31,41539,00024.1%
23University of California-Los AngelesCA37,59946,11622.7%
24San Jose State UniversityCA30,35037,13322.3%
25University of GeorgiaGA32,94140,11821.8%
26California State University-NorthridgeCA33,57940,10819.4%
27University of Maryland-College ParkMD34,80141,27218.6%
28University of FloridaFL47,37355,78117.7%
29Indiana University-BloomingtonIN38,90345,32816.5%
30California State University-Long BeachCA34,56640,19016.3%
31University of Wisconsin-MadisonWI40,88447,01615.0%
32California State University-SacramentoCA28,55832,49813.8%
33Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical CollegeLA32,22835,91211.4%
33Colorado State University-Fort CollinsCO29,25532,58611.4%
35Michigan State UniversityMI44,93749,65910.5%
36Temple UniversityPA32,35935,62610.1%
37University of Minnesota-Twin CitiesMN48,67752,3767.6%
38San Diego State UniversityCA34,30436,4846.4%
39Broward CollegeFL30,49630,9471.5%
40University of IowaIA29,69729,9090.7%
41Austin Community College DistrictTX35,57635,6090.1%
42The University of Texas at AustinTX52,26151,991-0.5%
43Indiana University-Purdue University-IndianapolisIN29,02527,690-4.6%
44San Francisco State UniversityCA28,37826,899-5.2%
45College of Southern NevadaNV32,13629,942-6.8%
46Miami Dade CollegeFL54,92644,002-19.9%
47Wayne State UniversityMI31,16724,919-20.0%
48Santa Ana CollegeCA30,34623,936-21.1%
49Santa Monica CollegeCA29,69123,408-21.2%
50Western Michigan UniversityMI29,73218,266-38.6%

Source: LendingTree analysis of IPEDS data. Note: School names are listed based on IPEDS entries.

Cost of tuition, fees, room and board has more than doubled

In public and private universities, the overall cost of attending college has risen substantially over the past 20 years — with the increase in the cost of a public university education outstripping that of a private one.

In-state tuition, fees, and room and board at four-year public universities have risen 131.9%, on average, across the U.S. between 2002 and 2021, and 101.6% for four-year private colleges. In both cases, the average costs have more than doubled.

In only four states did the cost of a public university education not double. Even in those states, it was close, with costs increasing as much as 98.2% in Utah and over 96% in Maryland and Wyoming. Florida enjoyed the lowest cost increase — and still saw a rise of 85.9%.

Average undergraduate tuition and fees and room and board rates: 4-year public

RankStateTotal cost 2002Total cost 2021% change 2002 to 2021
11North Dakota$6,843$18,057163.9%
14West Virginia$7,625$19,312153.3%
23New Hampshire$12,348$29,222136.7%
27Rhode Island$11,610$26,946132.1%
28North Carolina$7,667$17,779131.9%
30South Carolina$10,077$23,181130.0%
30South Dakota$7,469$17,177130.0%
36New Mexico$7,587$17,113125.6%
37New York$10,777$24,231124.8%
39New Jersey$12,854$28,335120.4%

Source: LendingTree analysis of National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data. Notes: Data covers full-time students in degree-granting institutions; District of Columbia was excluded due to data availability.

While every state saw an increase in the cost of a private college education, the price hikes were not as severe. In 15 states, the increase was less than double, and in one — New Hampshire — the increase was in the single digits (9.9%).

Average undergraduate tuition and fees and room and board rates: 4-year private

RankStateTotal cost 2002Total cost 2021% change 2002 to 2021
9North Carolina$21,024$49,893137.3%
12Rhode Island$27,192$61,692126.9%
16South Dakota$15,935$35,229121.1%
18New York$26,509$58,423120.4%
20District of Columbia$28,310$61,912118.7%
27New Jersey$25,203$52,442108.1%
28North Dakota$11,840$24,624108.0%
33South Carolina$18,435$37,629104.1%
43New Mexico$20,508$36,77079.3%
49West Virginia$18,329$22,30321.7%
50New Hampshire$26,482$29,1039.9%

Source: LendingTree analysis of National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data. Note: Data covers full-time students in degree-granting institutions; District of Columbia was excluded due to data availability.

Public vs. private: 4 tips about choosing a college type

Choosing where to go to college is an emotional decision, and it’s one that can have major ramifications on your financial health, too. If you’re in the thick of deciding where to go, here are some factors to keep in mind as you consider the public versus private question.

  • You can learn how much they cost ahead of time. These days, many schools list tuition, fees, and room and board costs on their websites — but that still doesn’t give you insight into your total responsibility after financial aid. Fortunately, you can get that information. “If you’re in high school and applying to several different schools,” Kitchen says, “you can have your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) data sent to all of them and then compare the financial aid award letters you get from each.” That way you can compare the actual costs, rather than the overall price tag. (It’s also why you shouldn’t let advertised costs keep you from applying — you don’t know the actual cost until you see that letter.)
  • Consider living at home. Room and board are one of the biggest expenses when it comes to college, so living at home with your family can help you save some serious dough if it’s an option that’s available to you. (Of course, living on or close to campus is also one of the best parts of the college experience for many students, so be sure to weigh your priorities and values.)
  • Apply for grants and scholarships. Yes, most students take out loans to go to college … but sources offer financial aid that doesn’t need to be paid back. Along with federal and private loans, consider applying for grants and scholarships. It can be time- and effort-consuming work, but it can also be a great way to dial down your total debt ahead of time.
  • Money isn’t everything. As important as financial factors are when it comes to choosing a college, no bargain is a bargain if you’re not getting what you want. “Beyond price,” Kitchen says, “make sure you’re going somewhere that can give you the experience and education you want.” That means considering your field of future study, if you know it, or your desire to live in a particular environment — be it the big city or the countryside. “A college search engine is a great way to shop around as you make this big decision,” Kitchen says.


LendingTree researchers analyzed Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data to analyze fall enrollment trends between 2002 and 2021 at degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

We identified the states with the greatest enrollment increases and decreases between 2002 and 2021. We also ranked the 50 largest public and private universities (as of 2002) based on their growth between then and 2021.

Additionally, we analyzed the cost of tuition, fees and room and board at four-year public and private colleges between 2002 and 2021.

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