After a year and a half of virtual learning, students finally returned to campuses this Fall. However, whether it's due to financial difficulties or health concerns, many students are putting college on hold causing enrollment to drop two years in a roll.
Early data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) shows that enrollment fell by 3.2 percent since last year, resulting in a combined 6.5 percent drop from two years ago. The decline is observed in all age groups. Right now only about half of the data from surveyed schools, representing 8.4 million students, has been analyzed, but Dr. Doug Shapiro, vice president of research and executive director of the research center, doesn’t expect any big changes in the overall performance.
“It would be the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years in the US,” he said, adding that the steep decline is especially painful with an already depressed level of enrollment even before the pandemic during a briefing on Monday. Shapiro explains that usually enrollments at community colleges would spike during a recession and students would go back to work later when the job market improves. But this did not happen during the pandemic. Community colleges are the most adversely affected sector during the pandemic with a 14.1 percent drop in enrollment since 2019, according to the report.
“There was simply no upside from the recession," said Shapiro. "Just a downside that we're seeing now from the recovery in the job market."
Additionally, many young people choose to join the workforce after graduating high school instead of going to college. And low-wage workers from low-income families have been lured away by the temporary hitch in the labor market where wages are increasing. Shapiro said that these students have always been on the margin between college and the workforce due to the need to support their families through hard times.
The decline is also observed in all age and gender groups. But college enrollment for men is dropping much more significantly than for women by four percentage points.
The pandemic encouraged more students to pursue a major in health care fields like nursing and other clinical science. The numbers went up by 2.5 percent in 2020. However, that trend has since been reversed with a 3.3 percent drop this year. The number of students majoring in Liberal Arts saw the most significant decline of eight percent over the past year.
Undergraduate enrollment rates dropped in all racial groups, but the historical disparity between those groups are not seen here. White and Black student enrollment both declined by roughly five percent. Asian and Latinx enrollment also dropped by half the rate compared to other groups but that’s mostly due to the population growth in these two ethnic groups, according to Shapiro.
The biggest drop occurred in international enrollment: a striking 20 percent decline from two years ago. The significant drop is expected as international travel remains difficult for many students, but can also signal trouble for institutions that admit large number of international students and are dependent on them for revenue. It’s hard to predict whether the decline in international enrollment will become a trend even after the pandemic.
“There were perhaps more political considerations before the pandemic where I think the United States was not seen as welcoming as in the past to international students. But it's really hard to weigh those factors against one another,” said Shapiro.
It’s worth noting that enrollment for international students did increase slightly on the graduate level.
“I think international students at the graduate level might have little more incentives to stay enrolled or come start the program at the graduate level because potentially they have some financial aid or scholarship offered by the hosting institutions,” said Dr. Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at NSCRC.
Shapiro notes that whether institutions could get back the students they lost in the last two years remains to be seen as the nation continues to emerge from the pandemic.