The U-M’s enrollment fell less than 1 percent during the pandemic and it’s been rising ever since: The 52,065 students on campus this fall set a new record. As U-M’s associate vice president for communications Rick Fitzgerald explains in an email, “the university has strategically been increasing the number of overall student enrollment—within our current capacity—to try to meet increasing demand.” This year’s 7,466 first-year students were chosen from 87,766 applicants.

MSU has 51,316 students this fall—up 3 percent from last year—but still lost the title of Michigan’s largest university to the U-M. And the big schools’ growth is coming at the expense of smaller ones. With fewer young people coming of college age, Bridge Michigan reported last fall, total enrollment at Michigan’s public universities had fallen 15 percent since 2011, and seven of the fifteen had lost more than a quarter of their student bodies. A chart showed Eastern Michigan University’s plunging from more than 23,000 in 2011 to just over 14,000 in 2022. (At press time, EMU had not yet posted fall 2023 numbers).

Fewer enrolled mean fewer employed, and EMU’s staff fell 16 percent from 2018 to 2022. The jobs lost have been “across the board, everything from administration to faculty to facilities,” says EMU’s vice president for communications, Walter Kraft. The cuts were made without layoffs through attrition early retirement incentives.

Kraft stresses that drops in enrollment aren’t “just an Eastern Michigan phenomenon.” In addition to having “a smaller population of high school students,” he notes, “a smaller percentage of high school students are deciding that higher education is the path they want to take right out of school.” 

Because community colleges enroll many older students, they haven’t felt the demographic dip as severely as four-year colleges—though in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Washtenaw Community College’s summer class enrollment fell 11 percent from the year before.

In 2021, Michigan rolled out its ReConnect program, offering free tuition to returning students. Since then, “we’ve seen a steady uptick in enrollment with 18,612 students enrolled in 2021 and 19,360 enrolled in 2022, a 4 percent increase,” emails the school’s director of media relations, Fran LeFort. But the growth is tapering off: “WCC’s enrollment this Fall 2023 semester is 10,811,” LeFort writes. “This is up .6 percent compared to the previous Fall 2022 semester.”