Undergraduate college enrollments fell again this spring, down nearly 5% from last year. That means 727,000 fewer students, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse.
“It’s really dramatic,” says Doug Shapiro, who heads the Clearinghouse research center. Fall enrollment numbers had indicated that things were bad, with a 3.6% drop in undergraduate studies from the previous year, but experts were waiting to see if students who waited at the fall would fit in with spring. It didn’t seem to be happening.
“Despite all kinds of hopes and expectations for things to get better, they only got worse in the spring,” Shapiro said. “It really is the end of a really scary year for higher education. There will be no easy fixes or quick rebound.”
Overall enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been trending down since around 2012, and this held true again this spring, which saw a 3.5% drop, seven times worse than the drop. from spring 2019 to spring 2020.
The Clearinghouse attributed this drop entirely to undergraduates from all industries, including for-profit colleges. Community colleges, which often enroll more low-income students and students of color, are by far the hardest hit, accounting for more than 65% of the total undergraduate enrollment losses this spring. On average, US community colleges experienced a 9.5% drop in enrollment, which translates to 476,000 fewer students.
“The enrollment landscape has completely changed and changed, as if an earthquake had hit the ground,” says Heidi Aldes, dean of enrollment management at Minneapolis College, a community college in Minnesota. She says her college’s fall 2020 enrollments were down about 8% from the previous year, and spring 2021 enrollments were down about 11%.
“Fewer students get an education”
Based on his conversations with students, Aldes attributes the drop in enrollment to a number of factors, including being online, the ‘pandemic paralysis’ felt by community members when COVID-19 hit for the first time and the financial situation in which the families found themselves.
“A lot of people felt like they couldn’t afford to do not work and therefore couldn’t afford to go to school and lose that full-time income, ”says Aldes. “There was so much uncertainty and unpredictability.
A disproportionately large number of students of color have withdrawn or decided to delay their educational goals, she said, adding to the equity gaps that already exist in the Minneapolis area.
“Of course there is a tax impact on college, but that’s not where my brain goes,” says Aldes. “There is a decline, which means that there are fewer students receiving an education. It is the tragedy, that fewer students are receiving an education, because we know how important education is. important for a successful future. “
To help increase enrollment, his team is reaching out to high school classes for 2020 and 2021, and reaching out to students who have already applied or who had already enrolled and have stopped attending. She hopes the college’s in-person offers – which now account for nearly 45% of its classes – will keep students coming back and appeal to those who aren’t interested in online classes. So far, the number of registrations for fall 2021 is up 1%. “We’re going up,” she said.
A widening gap
Despite the overall decline in enrollments nationwide, enrollment in graduate programs increased by more than 120,000 students this spring. This means that there is After students who already have university degrees After degrees, while at the other end of the spectrum, students early in their careers in higher education are retreating – a grim picture of a growing gap in America.
“It’s sort of the educational equivalent of getting rich for the rich,” says Doug Shapiro. “These education and skills gaps will be etched into our economy and the lives of these families for years to come.”
The value of a college degree – and its impact on earning capacity and recession resilience – has only been enhanced by the pandemic. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans with college degrees were more likely to stay employed during the pandemic, and if they lost their jobs, they were more likely to be hired again. Unemployment rates were higher for those with no diploma or certification beyond high school.
“Almost all of the income and employment gains over the past decade have gone to people with higher education degrees and titles,” Shapiro explains. “Those who are excluded from college today, especially community colleges, are moving further and further away from some of these benefits. “
In data from the Clearinghouse, traditional college-aged students, those aged 18 to 24, were the largest age group absent from undergraduate programs. This includes many students in the High School Class of 2020, who graduated early in the pandemic. Additional research from the Clearinghouse shows a 6.8% drop in college attendance rates among the class of 2020 compared to the class of 2019 – that’s more than four times the drop between the classes of 2018 and 2019. The rates University attendance was worse for students in very poor high schools, which experienced declines of more than 11%.
For communities and organizations tasked with helping high school graduates make the transition and succeed in college, the task this year is exponentially more difficult. Students have always struggled to attend college: “It’s not new to us,” says Nazy Zargarpour, who runs the Pomona Regional Learning Collaborative, which helps high school students in Southern California enroll and to graduate from university. “But this year it’s on steroids because of COVID.”
His organization offers local services to students to help them register or re-register at university. As part of this effort, Zargarpour and his colleagues conducted research to help them understand why students did not attend college during the pandemic.
“The students told us it’s a variety of things, including a lot of life challenges,” she says. “Families are disturbed because of the lack of work; families are disturbed by the challenges of the disease itself; students need to take care of their younger siblings; technology challenges. “
The bigger question now: will these students go back to college? Experts say the farther away a student is from graduating from high school, the less likely they are to enroll because life gets in the way. But Zargarpour is hopeful.
“It will take a little while for us to get back to normal and better, but my heart can’t bear to say that all hope is lost for a student.”