By Christina Zdanowicz, CNN
College campuses have fewer students on them, and it’s not just because of remote learning. There are about 1 million fewer college students enrolled since before the pandemic began, according to a report released Thursday.
Undergraduate enrollment declined by 3.1% or more than 465,000 students between fall 2020 and fall 2021, according to the report released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. A look at the past two years of the pandemic shows there are an estimated 1,025,600 fewer undergraduate students than were enrolled in fall 2019.
“That’s about a six and a half percent decline, which is the largest two-year drop that we’ve ever seen, at least in the last 50 years in the US for undergraduates. It’s about twice as steep a decline as the previous largest,” said Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the center, a research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse.
The last time there was a decline like this was in 2013, when enrollments were coming off “an all-time high driven by the Great Recession,” Shapiro told CNN. That’s normal, he said, as more people tend to enroll in college during a recession to better themselves and their skills. When recessions end, enrollments go down and people tend to get back to work, he added.
This recent decline is part of a larger trend of fewer undergraduate students enrolling over the past decade, Shapiro said.
“Enrollments were not doing great to begin with before the pandemic,” Shapiro said, adding that they were dipping 1% to 1.5% per year.
It matters on a personal level and a macro level. The impact of having fewer students enrolling in college could affect their earning potentials individually, as well as affect the economy in the long term, Shapiro said.
“The opportunity to really invest in their educational future, in their future skills, employability and earnings potential … is potentially slipping away. That’s not good for our students and their families,” Shapiro said. “It’s also not good for their communities and for the nation, for our future workforce and our economy.”
During the first year of the pandemic, community colleges were hardest hit in terms of enrollment, according to the center’s findings. Part of that comes from the pandemic economy, with people opting for better-paying jobs instead of spending money on college, Shapiro said.
“What’s really interesting this year is that the declines are broadening across all of higher education,” Shapiro said. “This year, we’re seeing the pain is actually evenly split between two-year and four-year colleges and especially in the less selective four-year colleges and the public four-year colleges where affordability and student debt have become some of the larger concern.”
While health and economic factors have played into why fewer students are enrolling in college during the pandemic, Shapiro said that some may be wondering about the value of college.
“I think the data suggests this year that more students are really questioning the value of going to college, not just whether this is a good time to go,” he said. “It feels like they’re less confident about what the payoff will be, particularly now when the job market is very strong, when there is a very there’s high demand for low-skilled workers without a degree and their wages are rising.”
College institutions had hoped that students were just taking a year off during 2020 and that they would come back when in-person learning started, Shapiro said. But, the data showed that “very few of those 2020 high school graduates who didn’t enroll as expected” in 2020 came back in 2021, he said.
Even though fewer students are enrolling, that doesn’t mean the college doesn’t still have value, according to Shapiro.
“The value of a college education has not changed,” he said. “It’s not true for everyone, but for most people if you don’t go to college, you’re cutting off a lot of potential, future earnings and then job security.”
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