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College enrollment plummeted during the pandemic. This fall, it's even worse

A majority of students at Los Angeles City College, the United States' largest community college district, are continuing with online classes for this fall semester in Los Angeles.
Al Seib
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
A majority of students at Los Angeles City College, the United States' largest community college district, are continuing with online classes for this fall semester in Los Angeles.

Enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities is on track to fall by another nearly 500,000 undergraduate students this fall, continuing the historic drops 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, the first fall of the pandemic, according to the research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The numbers are from a preliminary data set representing 8.4 million undergrad and graduate students from about 50% of U.S. colleges. The numbers show there are now 240,000 fewer undergraduates enrolled this fall compared with the same time last year, and if that rate of decline holds up for the rest of the colleges, that could translate into almost a half-million fewer undergraduate students.

"It's very frightening," says Doug Shapiro, who runs the nonprofit research center. "Far from filling the hole of last year's enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper."

If these preliminary numbers hold up, Shapiro says the last two years of undergrad decline, totaling more than 6%, would be the largest two-year decrease in at least half a century.

Overall, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has beentrending 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 Trackershow 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?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.