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Community colleges have 14 percent fewer students in the fall of 2021 than they had two years ago, according to a preliminary enrollment report from the National Student Clearinghouse’s Research Center. Credit: Alison Yin for the Hechinger Report

As colleges around the country resumed in-person learning in the fall of 2021, many educators expected students to return to campus after taking a pandemic gap year. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Ivory Tower: even fewer students showed up than during the worst months of the pandemic in the fall of 2020.

The number of undergraduate students is expected to drop 3.2 percent in the 2021-22 academic year after plunging 3.4 percent during the 2020-21 pandemic year, according to preliminary data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on Oct. 26, 2021. That adds up to 6.5 percent fewer undergraduate students now than there were  in the fall of 2019 before the pandemic. 

“If this current rate of decline were to hold up, it would be the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Half of the 3,600 colleges and universities that the Clearinghouse tracks have reported their fall enrollment data so far. Additional updates are expected in November and December.

Low-income young adults appear to be fleeing higher education in the highest numbers because colleges and universities that serve this population saw the largest enrollment declines. 

“Right now, a lot of young people seem to be going to work instead of going to college,” said Shapiro. 

Young adults from low-income families appear to be lured away from school by rising wages and the need to support their families through hard times, Shapiro explained. With nationwide labor shortages, hourly pay for the average worker was up 4.6 percent in September 2021 compared to a year earlier. Restaurants and retailers, from Starbucks to Costco, are boosting starting wages to $15 and more an hour.

Institutions that serve the wealthiest Americans, by contrast, are experiencing the opposite phenomenon: a  post-pandemic bulge in students. 

For the first time, the National Student Clearinghouse categorized institutions by how selective they are. The approximately 200 colleges and universities that Barron’s labels “most competitive” and “highly competitive”  were the only institutions with more students in the fall of 2021. Private nonprofit institutions, such as Harvard University, have 4 percent more students enrolled than last year and almost 2 percent more students enrolled since fall of 2019.  

“I think that many admissions offices were faced with a huge amount of uncertainty in trying to predict their yield among new freshmen this year, as well as with returning gappers,” said Shapiro. “So they erred on the safe side of admitting more.”

Public flagships, such as University of Virginia, are also seeing more students, albeit a much smaller 1 percent increase.

But as you descend down Barron’s selectivity ladder one notch to “very competitive” schools, the number of enrolled students declined 1.5 percent over two years.*

With each incremental decrease in selectivity, the empty college seats multiply. Among the 300 least selective public colleges and universities, which admit all who apply, enrollments are down a whopping 7 percent since the fall of 2019.

“Broad access, regional state colleges are clearly bearing the brunt,” said Shapiro.

Even for-profit colleges and universities that held onto students during the first year of the pandemic are hemorrhaging students. Preliminary data from less than half of the for-profit sector indicates a 13 percent drop in students. For-profits tend to serve older, low-income students, many of whom pursue short-term vocational certificates.  Community colleges, which serve a student population similar to for-profits, are dealing with an even larger 14 percent drop in enrollment since 2019. 

Last year, there were differences by field of study. This year, students are turning away from all fields and majors.  The so-called “Fauci effect,” in which the pandemic inspired more students to pursue careers in medicine, has apparently run its course. Last year, there was a 2.5 percent increase in students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in health professions, such as nursing, and related sciences. The number of students in those majors fell 3.3 percent in the fall of 2021, back to pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, the number of liberal arts majors is down almost 9 percent over the past two years. 

Declining numbers of college students was already a problem for many small liberal arts schools and for regional colleges where the nearby population is dwindling, such as in the Upper Midwest and New England. The new enrollment figures means fewer tuition dollars for these schools and that will threaten their survival.

Fewer college students today could also mean future economic troubles.

Already there are signs that the U.S. will produce fewer college graduates in the years to come. For students who started college in 2019, 2 percentage points fewer returned in the fall of 2020, compared to previous years. That could mean a 2 percentage point drop in college graduation rates four years from now. In a separate analysis, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is noticing that graduation rates for students who started college in 2014 are starting to falter, especially for students who began at a community college.

“The biggest questions are when, or if ever, some of the students we’ve lost in the last two years will start coming back,” said Shapiro. “Trying to understand how those students might ever get back onto the college path is really important. It’s our future workforce.”

*Clarification: An earlier version of this story cited Sacred Heart University in Connecticut as an example of a “very competitive” school, which generally experienced modestly declining enrollments. However, Sacred Heart’s student enrollment increased almost 10 percent between 2019 and 2021, making it an outlier in its category.

This story about college enrollment declines was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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  1. As a current college student, I agree that more and more people are no longer taking the college route for their futures. The newer generations are realizing that college is very expensive, and you are not guaranteed a secure job that you apply to whenever you get your degree because you do not have the actual experience for the job. I myself, questioned if I wanted to continue my education so that I can go towards the path of gaining experience in a certain field that will show I have experience in something and potentially land a great career. I also have friends who have dropped out of college during these past two years for that reason. I believe that the incoming generations will also realize that school will only be beneficial to some careers such as STEM majors and lawyers.

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