U.S. college enrollment declined sharply this spring, report shows

Overall spring enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities was down 3.5 percent compared with the year prior, marking the largest year-over-year drop in at least a decade, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). The spring numbers, which reflect 97 percent of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments, “confirm the pandemic’s severe impact on students and colleges this year,” NSCRC Executive Director Doug Shapiro told The 74 Million.

Large drop at community colleges, among men

As The Chronicle of Higher Education notes, “the top-line number doesn’t tell the whole story. Some students, institutions, and parts of the country have fared worse than others.” Looking just at undergraduate programs, 727,000 fewer students enrolled, a 4.9 percent drop compared with spring 2020. Graduate enrollment, meanwhile, grew by 4.6 percent, or 124,000 students.

Enrollment among men fell by 5.5 percent, compared with a 2 percent decrease among women, signaling an acceleration of an ongoing trend. Looking at specific age groups, students ages 18 to 24 had the largest decline at 5 percent; enrollment among students ages 25 or older, meanwhile, shrunk by just 1.2 percent.

And while all higher education sectors posted lower enrollment numbers this spring, U.S. community colleges recorded an especially steep 9.5 percent decline, accounting for 65 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment loss. Community colleges disproportionately enroll low-income students, who were more likely than their higher-income counterparts to withdraw from college during the pandemic.

“If you didn’t already have a degree, you are much more likely to be working in low-wage jobs. Front-line workers are much more likely to be out of work and to be much more stressed financially during the recession and the pandemic,” Shapiro told Inside Higher Ed. “Those are the students particularly that we see disappearing from community colleges, especially this year.”

Noting that “the [enrollment] declines have persisted longer than expected,” The 74 said it’s unclear when and whether enrollments will rebound. “How long that impact lasts will depend on how many of the missing students, particularly at community colleges, will be able to make their way back to school for the coming fall,” Shapiro said.

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