College enrollment plummets, even as effects of pandemic wane


The current US college and university enrollment crisis worsened in the spring of 2022, raising concerns that a fundamental shift is occurring in attitudes about the value of a college degree – even as the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted higher education operations.

The latest college enrollment figures released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicated that 662,000 fewer students enrolled in undergraduate programs in the spring of 2022 compared to the previous year, a drop of 4.7%. Graduate and professional student enrollment, which had been a bright spot during the pandemic, was also down 1% from a year ago.

Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, noted small gains among first-year students. However, he suggested that the numbers and the magnitude of the declines point to an underlying shift as students question whether college is the ticket to middle class and well-paying jobs.

Prospective students can weigh the relative value of jobs that require or expect a college degree against equally attractive opportunities that don’t, he said.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a major industry association, urged caution in interpreting the data.

“The numbers are disappointing and troubling, but I hesitate to read the major implications of enrollment changes in a spring semester during a pandemic,” Dr. Hartle said.

“One of the things we see clearly is that well-known institutions, flagship public colleges, have more applicants than they’ve ever had before, whereas regional state colleges are often struggling,” he said.

Even before the pandemic, however, college enrollment had plummeted nationwide, as higher education institutions were rocked by demographic shifts, the number of college-age students stabilizing, as well as student debt issues. A highly polarizing debate over immigration has also driven international students away.

While elite colleges and universities have continued to attract an influx of applicants, the pandemic has been devastating for many public universities, especially community colleges, which enroll many low- and middle-income students.

The declines occurred generally nationwide, but were slightly more pronounced in the Midwest and Northeast.

In a report this week, Tennessee officials said the percentage of public high school graduates who enrolled in college immediately after high school rose from 63.8% in 2017 to 52.8% in 2021.

Overall, public college and university enrollment declined by more than 604,000 students in spring 2022, or 5%. Within the public sector, community colleges fell the most, losing 351,000 students or 7.8%.

In total, community colleges across the country have lost 827,000 students since the pandemic began in spring 2020, according to figures released by the research center. It collects and analyzes data from over 3,600 post-secondary institutions for use by industry.

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In what Dr. Shapiro called possible signs of a “nascent recovery,” first-time freshman enrollment rose in spring 2022 by 13,700 students, or 4.2%, from last spring.

“It really remains to be seen whether this will translate into a greater recovery for freshmen in the fall,” Dr. Shapiro said.

The increase did not extend to black students, according to a special clearing house demographic analysis, which found black freshman enrollment fell by 6.5%, or 2,600 students. In total, there were 8,400 fewer black freshmen than in 2020.

In releasing its numbers, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission also cited what it called “notable disparities” between black and Hispanic students and white students.

Overall, Dr. Shapiro said the numbers were disheartening, higher than what the organization reported for the fall quarter.

“I thought we would start to see some of the declines start to come down a bit this quarter,” he said. “I’m surprised it seems to be getting worse.”


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