Enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities will likely fall by nearly 500,000 undergraduate students this fall, continuing the trend that began with the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to new data out Tuesday.
The decline of 3.2% in undergraduate enrollment this fall follows a similar drop of 3.4% the previous year, according to research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, NPR reported.
The stats are from a preliminary data set representing 8.4 million undergrad and graduate students from about 50% of U.S. colleges, according to NPR.
Overall, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been falling, but the COVID-19 pandemic and recession exacerbated the declines at the undergrad level.
"Enrollments are not getting better; they’re still getting worse," said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. "Far from filling the hole of last year’s enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper."
"College is the best chance you have to get into well-paying jobs in this economy," said Shapiro. "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."
Combined with last fall's declines, the number of undergraduate students in college is now down 6.5% compared to two years ago, the largest two-year enrollment drop in the last 50 years, the report found, CNBC reported.
This fall, select colleges saw a 4.3% increase in student numbers, but the enrollment at community colleges was down 14.1%, according to CNBC.
In the fall of 2020, community college enrollment fell by roughly 10% nationally, a drop of over 544,200 students compared to the previous year.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which began in March 2020, caused an economic recession, which usually increases college enrollments. especially at community colleges. But that didn't happen this year. Then, when the economy improved, more young people may have joined the workforce instead of going to college.
Another possible factor may be that some students were put off from attending colleges in-person over fears of contagion. Schools that are primarily online saw gains last year during the height of the pandemic; but this fall, enrollment dropped by 5.4% for undergrad programs and 13.6% for graduate programs.
The number of high school seniors who completed the financial aid form FAFSA declined. 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.
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, according to NPR.
At two-year public schools, tuition and fees average $3,770 for the 2020-2021 school year, according to the College Board, while at in-state four-year public schools, tuition is $10,560, and at four-year private universities it averages $37,650, according to CNBC.
The new data from the Clearinghouse 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%), according to NPR.
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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