When enrollment at college and universities dropped sharply in 2020, officials hoped it was a one-year blip caused by the pandemic. Instead, numbers are still dropping and analysts fear a wider shift away from higher education could be underway. According to data released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment in fall 2021 was down 3.1% from the previous year, for a total two-year drop of 6.6%, the biggest in more than 50 years. Doug Shapiro, head of the NSC's research center, tells NPR that the year-on-year drop of nearly 500,000 undergraduates is "very frightening." Far from "filling the hole" of last year's declines, he says, "we are still digging it deeper."
According to the NSC's estimates, the biggest decline in 2021 was at four-year institutions, but community college enrollment has dropped the most since the start of the pandemic, with a decline of more than 13%. Shapiro tells the Washington Post that with wages rising and plenty of low-skilled jobs available, young people 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." He says the trend could be starting to "build its own momentum as a cultural shift and not just a short-term effect of the pandemic disruptions."
Shapiro says he is especially worried about young people from middle- to lower-income families who decide against college, possibly "trading a short-term gain for a long-term loss." He warns that while earning good money might seem more attractive than college right now, their future income could be stagnant if they don't upgrade their skills—and a shortage of skilled workers is bad for the whole economy. The NSC says only 2% of high school graduates who decided against college in 2020 enrolled the following year. "There’s a great deal at stake," Shapiro says. "We have to get students back on track, re-engage them." (Read more college stories.)