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College enrollment dropped by 700,000 students — the worst decline in a decade

Enrollment rates this spring are very concerning. Here’s why

Sangren Hall on the campus of Western Michigan University.
This Nov. 14, 2016, file photo, shows Sangren Hall on the campus of Western Michigan University Kalamazoo, Mich.
Bryan Bennett, Kalamazoo Gazette via Associated Press

Higher education enrollment fell to a new low this spring, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse. The last academic year had the steepest drop in enrollment since 2011 — when the National Student Clearinghouse began collecting data.

  • Overall, higher education enrollment fell by 3.5% year-over-year, said Inside HigherEd.
  • Student enrollment dropped from 17.5 million in spring 2020 to 16.9 million in spring 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

The drop in enrollment will have long-lasting consequences on individuals, families and the wider economy, according to NPR.

How much did college enrollment drop?

Undergraduate enrollment dropped by 4.8% this year compared to last year. The decline amounts to 747,000 fewer students, reported NPR. This decline has disproportionately affected students of color and lower-income students.

  • Experts originally expected enrollment at community colleges to spike following the start of the pandemic, said Inside HigherEd. The opposite occurred.

Community college enrollment was the hardest hit, accounting for 65% of lost enrollment or 476,000 students, said NPR. Community colleges enroll more low-income students and students of color than other colleges, making this trend worrisome.

  • Of all age groups, enrollment fell the most among traditional college-aged students, those ages 18 to 24, with 4.8% fewer students enrolling, said Inside HigherEd.

Not every sector of education saw a decline. Enrollment in graduate programs increased by 4.6% — or more than 120,000 students, per NPR.

Why did college enrollment decline?

Enrollment in higher education has been declining since 2012. This year’s drop has been attributed primarily to the COVID-19 pandemic, said NPR. Educational institutions were upended when the pandemic hit.

  • Last fall’s enrollment also saw a decline but many had hoped that students who chose not to return to school last fall would return in the spring, said NPR. The opposite occurred.

Some students likely chose not to return to school because of the online format. Other students may have dropped out due to their financial situation, reported NPR. They simply needed to work and could not take the time off to return to college.

Why is the decline in enrollment concerning?

The decline in enrollment may have long-term consequences, said NPR. College degrees offer higher earning power and resilience in an economic recession. This year’s trends threaten to widen the education gap. Fewer students entered undergraduate programs yet more undergraduate students continued into graduate programs.

  • “It’s kind of the educational equivalent of the rich getting richer,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse, via NPR.
  • “Those gaps in education and skills will be baked into our economy, and those families’ lives, for years to come,” Shapiro said.