Personal Finance

College enrollment notched the largest two-year decline in 50 years, due to Covid

Key Points
  • Almost two years into the pandemic, college enrollment is still falling.
  • Studies show that those who delay higher education pay an economic cost.
How college students struggling financially can get back on track
How college students struggling financially can get back on track

College enrollment was supposed to bounce back this fall. Instead, more students opted out.

Nationwide, fewer students went back to school again this year, dragging undergraduate enrollment down another 3.2% from last year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that's based on early data from colleges. There were roughly 17.5 million students enrolled as of the last tally.

Combined with last autumn's declines, the number of undergraduate students in college is now down 6.5% compared to two years ago — the largest two-year enrollment drop in the last 50 years, the report found.

"Enrollments are not getting better; they're still getting worse," said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. "Far from filling the hole of last year's enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper."

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As the pandemic's economic impact continues to weigh on the economy, college enrollment is down at two- and four-year schools, the report found. Only the most selective colleges notched enrollment gains — up 4.3% — to return to pre-pandemic levels.

"As you go down the selectivity scale, the overall declines start to grow," Shapiro said. "Community colleges remain the most adversely affected sector, experiencing a 14.1% total enrollment decline since fall 2019."

Historically, community colleges see an influx of students during economic downturns.

For starters, community college is significantly less expensive. At two-year public schools, tuition and fees are $3,770 for the 2020-2021 school year, according to the College Board. Alternatively, at in-state four-year public schools, tuition is $10,560 and at four-year private universities it averages $37,650.

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New York City funds college plans for students to close wealth gap

However, this time, even fewer students enrolled.

Community college students likely are older, lower-income and often balancing work, children and other obligations — and they are also disproportionately students of color. These are all groups that the pandemic hit especially hard.

Studies show that postponing a higher education comes with a steep economic cost.

The earnings gap experienced by delayers compared with on-time enrollees is at least $41,000 in the first 13 years after high school graduation, according to another report by the Community College Research Center. The lifetime penalty is at least three times higher.

Further, those who put college on hold are less likely to return at all.

Only 13% of college dropouts come back within five years, an earlier National Student Clearinghouse report found, and even fewer graduate.

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