Skip to main content

University enrollment in Arizona defies recent trends, but not all schools benefit

Enrollment is up at Arizona’s universities overall this fall, largely bucking a recent downward trend for many schools across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The numbers paint the first "normal" picture of student enrollment following the last unprecedented school year, where many students deferred enrollment, sat out or opted for remote classes.

But the gains are not evenly felt across universities in the Grand Canyon State.

Northern Arizona University’s enrollment decreased for the third consecutive year, putting mounting budget and operational pressure on a university that relies heavily on tuition funds and enrollment growth.

Arizona State University and the University of Arizona both saw upticks in students, largely driven by growth in online learners, but also increasing numbers of people on campus.

While the trends are mostly positive, Arizona schools still need to boost enrollment, especially for in-state students, to put the state in a strong economic position moving forward.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated concerns in the higher education world about lagging enrollments nationwide and the effect on institutions financially and the economy more broadly. Universities and community colleges nationally had seen several years of declining enrollment prior to the pandemic, but Arizona universities have on the whole grown in recent years.

Higher education enrollment nationwide hit a new low in the spring, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Losses were worst among community colleges, which nationally saw 9.5% fewer students in spring 2021 than a year earlier.

Maricopa Community Colleges this fall again saw a sharp decline in enrollment, about 17% from last year, early data shows.

Thank you for subscribing. This premium content is made possible because of your continued support of local journalism.

Arizona’s universities overall are continuing to expand, with some of their fastest growth in online enrollment. That's somewhat different from the national picture, where full-time enrollment declined across all institution types in the spring, especially for traditional college-age students, per the National Student Clearinghouse.

The three public universities now enroll a total of about 214,000 students, a 4.6% increase over last year and a 9.3% increase from pre-COVID fall 2019.

The Arizona Board of Regents’ enrollment report for fall 2020 notes that while total enrollment hit a record then too, “the current pandemic and future demographic trends pose challenges to continued efforts to increase enrollment and educational attainment.” The board is the governing body for the three state universities and sets systemwide goals. 

The numbers are 21st-day headcounts provided by university officials. Headcounts include individual students, full-time or part-time, who are registered for at least one credit hour by the third week of classes. It’s a broad measure of how many students the university is educating.

Grand Canyon University, a private university in west Phoenix, also saw enrollment growth this fall, with an estimated 23,500 students on campus and about 91,500 online. That continues growth from last year, with about 2.2% more students on campus this fall and 1.7% more online.

Online students are increasing in number at the public universities too, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic. This fall nearly 71,000 students are taking at least some classes online through ASU, UA or NAU. Nearly 58,000 ASU students take some online classes, which is about 43% of the total student body.

And the number of international students is bouncing back after a low year during the pandemic. That figure has important implications on university budgets, as international students pay higher tuition than in-state students. ASU officials say they have about 10,800 international students from 152 countries taking classes on-campus and online this fall, about 25% more than last year.

ASU President Michael Crow said in an interview before the semester began that enrollment was up across the board at ASU because “we have the services that people want,” including over 400-degree programs.

“In spite of the counter-rhetoric from folks out there that nobody really wants to go to college, it's actually not true,” he said. “People want to go to a real university that has real opportunities for teaching and learning. We have huge demand. So research is at record level, enrollment is at record level, graduation is at record level, diversity is at record level.”

Here is the latest picture of university enrollment in Arizona:

Arizona State University

ASU saw growth in enrollment in all key areas this fall.

Total enrollment was at 135,767, an increase of about 5% from this time last year, and about 13% from two years ago. Undergraduate enrollment increased by 3.7% from last year and graduate enrollment by 12.5%.

Online enrollment grew by 7.2% from last year and the numbers this fall are 33.5% higher than fall 2019.

Undergraduate enrollment on campus increased too, but not as quickly as online enrollment. About 64,700 undergraduate students are taking classes on campus, an increase of 2.5% from last year.

ASU hit a record for first-year on-campus students: about 14,350 students, nearly 60% of whom are Arizona residents.

University of Arizona

UA similarly saw an uptick in undergraduate and graduate students, as well as online students.

The university has a total of about 49,500 students, an increase of 7.3% from last fall and 10% from fall 2019.

Undergraduate enrollment increased 7.9% from last year, while graduate student enrollment increased 5.2%.

Online enrollment is over 7,300 students, which is 13.4% higher than last year and 64.2% higher than fall 2019. That number is expected to continue to increase throughout the year because Arizona Online has six admission points each year, a spokesperson said.

UA, like ASU, has its largest first-year class in school history, with more than 8,700 new students.

Northern Arizona University

NAU continued a pattern of decreased enrollment for a third year.

The school saw its first enrollment decline in 14 years in 2019 and the numbers have dropped further since.

About 28,700 total students are currently enrolled, down from headcounts of nearly 29,600 in 2020 and 30,700 in 2019.

The number of undergraduates at NAU dropped by 4.2% from last year and 8.8% from 2019. And the number of undergraduates taking classes on campus fell too, down 9% from last year about 14.7% from 2019.

Online enrollment was down 5.3% from last year.

One bright spot was graduate student enrollment, which grew by 4.9% from last year and 7.8% from fall 2019.

José Luis Cruz Rivera began as NAU's new president in June and is leading an effort to draft a "strategic roadmap" to shape the next few years in areas including academics and student access and graduation.

Grand Canyon University

GCU saw its largest-ever incoming class this fall, with more than 9,000 new students, just larger than UA's first-year class.

Total enrollment on the west Phoenix campus is projected at 23,500, up from 23,000 last year and about 22,000 two years ago.

The university has seen rapid growth. In 2008, it had fewer than 1,000 traditional college-age students.

About 91,500 students are taking classes online, although numbers are still preliminary since GCU started later than the state universities, according to spokesperson Bob Romantic. GCU has more online students than the three public universities combined.

GCU President Brian Mueller has said students want to come to GCU for strong academics, affordable tuition and the Christian community culture. GCU has not raised tuition on the Phoenix campus since 2008-09. 

Have a story about higher education? Reach the reporter at or at 602-444-4282. Follow her on Twitter @alisteinbach.