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College Enrollment Continues To Decline
female student in silhouette looking at the books from the bookshelf - stock photo female student in silhouette looking at the books from the bookshelf Kilito Chan via Getty Images
Kilito Chan via Getty Images

Colleges are experiencing an intense drop in the number of students enrolling in classes to receive undergraduate degrees, showing a trend that might not taper off with the end of the pandemic. 

New data released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse showed that U.S. colleges and universities experienced a decline of almost 500,000 undergraduate students in the fall of 2021, keeping up with a drop that started the fall prior, NPR noted.

The National Student Clearinghouse data showed that “[c]ontinued enrollment losses in the pandemic represent a total two-year decline of 5.1 percent or 938,000 students since fall 2019.”

It added, “[u]ndergraduate enrollment alone fell by 3.1 percent or 465,300 students over last year while graduate enrollment is down less than half a percent.”

There was also a difference in the topics students are signing up to study. 

The report noted, “Enrollment in each of the five largest undergraduate majors at four-year colleges fell steeply this year (Business, Health, Liberal Arts, Biology, and Engineering). Liberal Arts declined the most (-7.6%), while Computer Sciences and Psychology (the 6th and 7th largest majors) grew by 1.3 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.”

“Among largest two-year college majors, Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services declined the most (-7.4%), while Computer Sciences and Engineering increased,” it added. 

When contrasted with numbers of the fall of 2019 before the pandemic hit, undergraduate enrollment numbers have gone down 6.6% in total, per NPR. Shapiro noted that rate is the biggest two-year decline in over 50 years. 

While some thought students would take a year off from school during the pandemic, and go back to college in 2021, that doesn’t appear to be the immediate outcome. 

“It’s very frightening,” Doug Shapiro, leader of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse, said, per NPR. “Far from filling the hole of [2020’s] enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper.”

Community colleges around the country are also experiencing a drop — 13% enrollment decline over the period of the coronavirus pandemic. However, NPR noted that the fall of 2021 numbers reveal that students going to school for a bachelor’s degree at four-year schools accounted for around half of the reduction in undergraduate students. In 2020, that number was different, with the decrease happening more among students who were getting associate degrees. 

“The phenomenon of students sitting out of college seems to be more widespread. It’s not just the community colleges anymore,” said Shapiro. “That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself. I think if that were the case, this is much more serious than just a temporary pandemic-related disruption.”

Enrollment in graduate programs also went down after rising in the fall of 2020. It decreased by around 11,000 in the fall of 2021.Overall, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has been trending downward since around 2012, but the pandemic turbocharged the declines at the undergrad level,” NPR added.

The data also showed that “[a]dult students (age 24 and older) saw the sharpest relative enrollment decline this fall … largely driven by steep declines at four-year colleges.”

Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were the only states to see a rise in the percentage of total enrollment for the fall. 

The vast number of job openings, paired with employers offering various incentives to attract workers, could also be contributing to prospective students delaying their degrees. “Woke” concepts and liberal agendas have also promulgated the levels of higher education, possibly deterring students from seeking out more schooling for fear of retaliation from those who don’t share their political views.

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