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Enrollment Rate For College Freshmen Drops By Double Digits
Young woman with backpack walking in corridor
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

Enrollment rates have declined for undergraduate students at colleges and universities across the United States, and much of it can be attributed to fewer freshman choosing to attend, according to a new study released on Thursday.

Figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show that first-year students have enrolled in college at a 16% lower rate than first-years in 2019. This group of students accounts for 69% of the total decline in the national undergraduate enrollment rate, a figure that currently stands at a 4% decline. 

The data also show that community colleges have been particularly affected by the decline, experiencing a roughly 23% drop in enrollment among first-year students over last year, a time when those colleges showed a 1.4% increase in enrollment. Total enrollment is down at community colleges by 9.4% over last year. 

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the center, told The New York Times in an interview that community college enrollment during the Great Recession actually increased, and called the declining rate in the 2020 enrollment data “staggering.” 

“I fear that many of those students will never get back,” he told The Wall Street Journal

While 6.4% of the decline in undergraduate students attending universities is among men, the number of women seeking undergraduate degrees dropped by only 2.2%. 

On the other hand, the number of undergraduate students attending online colleges and universities institutions where over 90% of students were enrolled exclusively online prior to the pandemic has actually increased by 6.8%. 

Online schools also saw a 26.3% increase in students between the ages of 21 and 24 pursuing graduate degrees, which could perhaps be attributed to the job market. Back in 2019, this demographic only increased its graduate degree enrollment by 4.3%.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the new data are based on reports from 54% of the 3,600 colleges, universities, and other schools that engage with the center’s services. The 54% figure also includes over 9 million students. 

While many would-be freshmen appear to be forgoing college or university for the academic year — or perhaps even longer — students who have opted to attend have faced new challenges distinct from the typical first-year experience. 

According to InsideHigherEd, some universities have started to introduce prizes to students who get tested for the coronavirus at certain intervals, in order to incentivize voluntary testing and help with “testing fatigue,” in the words of one college official. 

Aside from testing regimens, other universities have implemented requirements for social-distancing, with punishments for rule-breakers. For example, The Ohio State University suspended 228 students for breaking rules for social gatherings back in August, before classes even started.

At the beginning of the academic year, Northeastern University dismissed 11 students from a study abroad-type program, one mile from campus, for breaking social-distancing guidelines in their dorms, as The Daily Wire previously reported. While the students will be allowed to return to the university the following semester, they were not granted refunds for their $36,500-per-semester program. 

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