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College enrollment numbers drop to historic lows

Colleges and universities are facing the lowest enrollment numbers in 50 years

People in State College, Pennsylvania.
People walk by Old Main on the Penn State University main campus on Nov. 9, 2017, in State College, Pa. Nationally, colleges and universities are facing the lowest enrollment numbers in 50 years, according to new data.
Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

Colleges are facing a historical decline in enrollment numbers from before the coronavirus pandemic began.

New data indicates that U.S. colleges and universities saw nearly one million fewer students enrolled, compared to 2019.

The enrollment for fall 2021 fell by 3.1% and is down overall by 6.6% since the start of the pandemic.

There are 983,000 fewer students attending college compared to fall 2019.

“The longer this continues, the more it starts to build its own momentum as a cultural shift and not just a short-term effect of the of the pandemic disruptions,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said, per The Washington Post. “Students are questioning the value of college. They may be looking at friends who graduated last year or the year before who didn’t go, and they seem to be doing fine. They’re working; their wages are up.”

Per NPR, community colleges continue to feel the bulk of the decline, with a 13% decline in enrollment.

“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.”

What is the bigger picture?

More people without credentials and degrees means fewer people qualified for higher-paying jobs.

“The direct loss to the economy is the workers themselves,” said Tony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, per Cap Radio. “If they were trained and ready, they would get higher-wage jobs and they would add more to GDP, making us all richer and increasing taxes, reducing welfare costs, crime costs, on and on.”