Undergraduate enrollment in the United States is plummeting after COVID-19 and the lockdown-induced recession.
According to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 7.8% fewer students are now participating in undergraduate programs, with public two-year schools and private for-profit four-year schools seeing the most significant declines:
Roughly two months into the second fall semester of the pandemic, postsecondary enrollment is now running 2.6 percent below last year’s level, for a total 5.8 percent drop since 2019. Undergraduate enrollment declined 3.5 percent from last fall or 7.8 percent from fall 2019. Graduate enrollment grew 2.1 percent, maintaining the upward trend from last fall (+2.7%), for a total 4.9 percent growth since 2019.
Undergraduate enrollment continued to trend downward across all sectors, with the steepest drops in the private for-profit four-year and public two-year institutions. Undergraduate female students declined slightly more than males (-4.1% and -3.4%, respectively). Continued enrollment losses among traditional college-age students (18-24) remain concerning (-2.6% for 18-20 and -3.3% for 21-24).
Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, overall enrollment for males fell by 10.2%, while enrollment for females fell by 6.8%. Male enrollment in public two-year schools fell by nearly 19% during the same period.
With respect to credential type, associate degree and undergraduate certificate programs have seen enrollment declines of 15.1% and 8.2%, respectively. Undergraduate programs are 3.2% smaller, while master’s and doctoral programs are 5.8% and 4.9% larger.
Most of the losses have been concentrated in less selective institutions; indeed, highly selective four-year programs have seen modest growth since 2019. Nevertheless, enrollment for men has diminished in all types of schools with the exception of private nonprofit four-year institutions.
As CNBC reported, many small schools — such as Bloomfield College in New Jersey, Judson College in Alabama, Becker College in Massachusetts, and Concordia College in New York — plan to shut their doors. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is merging six universities into two amid declining revenue.
However, CNBC added that elite universities are seeing large numbers of applications and net revenue gains. Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton are increasing their financial aid offerings.
“They are often made to be the villains, but the vast majority of these institutions are working very hard to deploy those funds to the benefit of students,” commented National Education Policy Center partner Sam Pollack. “If the highly selective schools are able to subsidize that cost, it makes it even more compelling and that has broad implications for the higher education landscape.”
As many universities fail to protect free expression for their students, a group of former university administrators, professors, authors, and entrepreneurs are launching a new institution called the University of Austin.
“In the liberal university, open inquiry and debate about the world were prized as values in their own right,” explained co-founder and venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale in an op-ed for the New York Post. “Our society recognized this by endowing universities with public money, trust, and power. In modern universities, these values have been lost, as has the legitimacy they impart. Robust debate on important topics is increasingly rare, and uniformity of viewpoint is increasingly demanded. Universities have been captured by new ideologies of intolerance that order subservience and quash those who think differently.”
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