Pandemic continues trend of declining college enrollment

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

Will higher education ever recover from the coronavirus pandemic? Initial indications are dicey at best.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published data that showed enrollment rates at colleges and universities are not improving due to the pandemic and overall uncertainty. U.S. News noted that enrollment has declined since fall 2020 and there is little indication that this trend will change in the short-term.

Undergraduate student enrollment has fallen by 3.2% since the fall 2020 semester, which is slightly lower than fall 2021’s 3.4% dip. Meaning, since 2019, college enrollment has plummeted 6.5% and it is hitting higher education institutions hard.

For community colleges, the rates were far worse. Enrollment fell 5.6% in 2021, but it is a slight improvement from the 9% drop in 2020. In total, there was a 14% drop in enrollment since pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

Additionally, public undergraduate enrollment fell by 2.3% this year, which is far more than the 0.8% dip in 2020. For mostly-online institutions, undergraduate enrollment dropped by 5.4% while graduate enrollment fell off by 13.6%. However, for private undergraduate enrollment, it fell 0.7% from 2020 to 2021.

Freshman student enrollment fell by 3.1% in 2021, despite previous predictions that students who took a “gap year” between graduating high school and going to college would be returning to college campuses this year.

Interestingly enough, highly-selective private non-profit institutions saw an increase in enrollment of 4.3% in 2021 compared to 1.8% in 2019. Less selective private non-profit institutions saw a decline, while enrollment at highly-selective public universities (such as state flagship universities) dropped between 2.8% to 5.7%. Less selective public institutions saw an 8% enrollment drop since 2019.

Even the post-Great Recession enrollment rate drop-off was not as bad as the pandemic-induced struggles, which was a 3.3% reduction between 2011-2013.

But the data is incomplete because about half of all U.S. higher education institutions reported their enrollment rate struggles. Yet, the 2019-2021 drop was the worst two-year decline in enrollment rates in decades, according to the Department of Education.

Also, it appears that the data omits the names of institutions to avoid embarrassment of suffering student enrollment decreases. But, based on the general terms, it could be safe to assume that “highly-selective” private non-profit institutions include the likes of Harvard University or other Ivy League institutions fared better than state flagship universities such as the University of Texas-Austin.

Yet, the data brings up several interesting questions. Did the pandemic offer some prospective students more clarity on whether to go deep into debt to obtain impractical undergraduate degrees? Or did the pandemic push these prospective students to seek trade or technical work instead of spending four years in a close-minded, left-wing institution?