Is the pandemic to blame for lower college enrollments?
Monday, January 11, 2021
As is customary for a high school principal who lives in the community that he serves, when I see my former students out and about in town I always ask them how they are doing and what they have been up to since graduation.
This season, I have been surprised to hear about the number of my students who have chosen to defer their freshman year of college. Among all of the reasons given, these three pandemic-related ones are often cited:
- Uncomfortability with living in a dorm during the pandemic.
- Dislike for a remote learning format (especially if paying the same tuition rate as an in person format).
- Lack of money/finances due to other constraints in the family.
This trend is not just reserved for undergraduates. In the last three months, I have hired five of my recent graduates as temporary teachers because they finished their undergraduate degree but want to put off starting graduate school for the same reasons listed above.
I know my students’ situations are not unique, but rather part of a global trend. It seems, for the 20-something Generation Zers in our society, the pandemic has put many of their educational plans on hold for now.
Recently, Mind/Shift’s Elissa Nadworny reported that fall 2020 college enrollment plummeted for first-year students. Nadworny writes, “According to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment this fall declined by 3.6% from the fall of 2019. That's more than 560,000 students and twice the rate of enrollment decline seen last year. Most of that decline occurred at community colleges, where enrollment fell by more than 10%, or more than 544,000 students.”
Indeed, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks college admissions, matriculation, and compilation rates, first-year college enrollments for the class of 2020 is down 22%, compared to the class of 2019. Perhaps the most alarming part of this statistic, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center Executive Director Doug Shapiro, is this: “…the pandemic impacted high school graduates in their immediate college enrollment, and those from high poverty, low income, and urban high schools have been hit the hardest.”
As Nadworny reports, the trend has put many colleges and universities into dire financial situations, with community colleges and other small schools feeling the brunt of the impact. This has forced many colleges to take drastic measures, including furloughs/layoffs for staff, cancellation of athletics and other programs, and cutting of academic courses, programs, and/or degrees.
The short supply of students is a problem that will continue to plague these schools even after the pandemic ends. A national trend of fewer live births equates to a downward enrollment in K-12 schools which will mean that the number of U.S. high school graduates will peak in 2025, and then start a decline that could last as long as 2037. This will greatly disrupt how colleges operate and plan for future budgets.
What will be the long-term impact of a decline in college degrees among Generation Zers? I predict two social trends will fill the void to address this:
- We will see an increasing number of students enter the trades. This move started before the pandemic, as I reported in this 2019 MultiBriefs Exclusive.
- We will see an increasing number of employers embed on-the-job training, licensure programs, and tuition reimbursement so that they can hire students directly from high school without formal college degrees.
- High schools will continue to fill the gap of providing students with entry-level college coursework through dual enrollment and industry-certification programming, subsidized by states and other organizations.
For years, we as educators conditioned our graduating seniors to believe that the logical next step to high school was a college degree. Will the pandemic disrupt this? I believe it will, but the scale of the disruption won’t be felt fully for several years to come.
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