Overall, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been trending downward since around 2012, but the pandemic turbocharged the declines at the undergrad level. When fewer students go to college, fewer students graduate, get job training and move on to higher-paying jobs, meaning all this could have huge ramifications for the U.S. economy.
"College is the best chance you have to get into well-paying jobs in this economy," says Shapiro. "It's not the only path, and it's certainly not a guarantee, but it's the best path we have right now. And so, if more students are thrown off that path, their families and communities suffer, and our economy suffers because businesses have fewer skilled workers to hire from."
In previous recessions, college enrollments have followed a wavelike pattern: When the economy is doing poorly, enrollment, especially at community colleges, typically goes up. Students go to college when they can't find work. But as the job market improves, they leave college and join the workforce.
"This time, that entire crest of that wave just didn't happen — it got swallowed up by the pandemic," explains Shapiro. "What we've seen instead is literally two troughs, one after the other. So there was no upside from the recession. We just got the downside from the recovery, as the labor market recovers and jobs are going back up."
This fall, the drop in undergraduate enrollment is spread across all sectors, but numbers are worse at community colleges, public four-year colleges and private for-profits. While schools that are primarily online saw gains last year during the height of the pandemic, those positives turned to negatives this fall, with enrollment dropping by 5.4% for undergrad programs and 13.6% for graduate programs.
Community colleges, which often enroll more low-income students and students of color, have consistently been the hardest hit. The preliminary fall data show the decline this fall to be 5.6%. That's not quite as steep as last year: In the fall of 2020, community college enrollment fell by roughly 10% nationally — a loss of over 544,200 students when compared with the fall of 2019. That sharp decline continued last spring.
The new figures confirm other signs that declines among undergraduates will continue — notably, the number of high school seniors who fill out the financial aid form known as the FAFSA. That figure for seniors who graduated in the spring of 2021 fell 4.8% compared with the class of 2020, which was itself down 3.7% from 2019.
"The FAFSA is one of the best indicators that we have about college-going," explains Bill DeBaun, who works for the National College Attainment Network and tracks FAFSA completion. "To see it really go off the rails for two graduating classes, and not have a ton of confidence that it's going to get back on track for the current one, you know, really, really does sound the alarm."
Numbers from the organization's FAFSA Tracker show that high-poverty schools, as well as those with large numbers of Black and Hispanic students, had a smaller percentage of students filling out the form than at wealthier schools with predominantly white enrollment.
The new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows enrollment among first-year students declined 3.1% this fall. Nationally, freshman enrollment fell most steeply among white students (8.6%) and Black students (7.5%).
At U.S. community colleges, the freshman class is now 20.8% below the number for the freshman class in 2019. "A lot of young people seem to be going to work instead of to college," says Shapiro. The big question now, he adds, is "will those students ever get back onto the college path?"
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