COVID-19 drives steep decline in US student enrolment

One year into the COVID pandemic, American colleges and universities have suffered the greatest decline in enrolment in a decade, with 603,000 fewer Americans enrolled in college or university than were enrolled last year.

This represents a 3.5% drop in the number of students in higher education, seven times greater than the year-on-year decline recorded in the spring of 2020 at the start of the pandemic, says a study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).

Doug Shapiro, executive director of NSCRC, points to the COVID crisis as the main driver pushing students to forgo higher education. “The final estimates for spring enrolment confirm the pandemic’s impact on students and colleges this year,” he says.

The impact was not, however, uniform across the board. In Massachusetts, for example, institutions in the private non-profit four-year category, which would include Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a number of other private colleges attended by affluent students, saw only a 1.1% decline while public four-year colleges saw a decline of 2.5%.

By contrast, institutions such as New Mexico’s public universities and South Dakota’s private colleges and universities suffered declines of 7.1% and 10%, respectively, while the community colleges across the country saw a decline of 9.5%.

This discrepancy comes as no surprise to Mark Salisbury, CEO of Tuitionfit, which provides college and university-bound students with financial information necessary to making informed decisions about which schools to apply to.

“The effects caused by COVID keep getting bigger as you go down the socio-economic ladder. The more affluent the institution, the more affluent the students, the less likely they are to stop going.

“The less affluent, the more dependent on Pell Grants [US federal education grant] and other funding, are more vulnerable. Often, they do not have broadband necessary for online and the institutions they go to don’t really have the ability to do online teaching well,” he says.

Pointing to figures like the eye-popping drop of 14.8% of ‘bums in the seats’, the admission officer’s short-hand for enrolled students, suffered by Massachusetts community colleges, Salisbury told University World News: “It’s a completely different planet in four-year schools than community colleges.”

New York State’s system of community colleges has experienced an almost 10% drop in the number of students. These schools provide technical education and, increasingly, serve as a ‘pipeline’ into four-year institutions for poor and, in America’s inner cities, minority students.

“Everyone expected community college enrolment to skyrocket; clearly that didn’t happen,” Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations of the American Association of Community Colleges, told Inside Higher Ed.

Nationally, the number of graduate students actually increased by 4.6%. By contrast, the number of undergraduates in four-year institutions declined by 4.9% or 727,000 students. As compared with last year, almost 476,000 community college spaces were vacant. The vast majority of these students come from the 18- to 24-year-old cohort. Fully 13.2% of recent high school graduates, some 365,000, have chosen to forego enrolling in a community college.

According to Salisbury, these people have not turned their back on the long-held belief that education is the ticket to a job or career.

He imagines one of these students thinking, “If I were paying the same amount and I was going to be sitting in a room with a professor, even if I had to take the bus or train, I wouldn’t ask if it was worth it in the same way.

“But, if the professor doesn’t understand technology like Zoom, and my phone doesn’t always pick it up because I’m trying to use my phone as a hotspot, and so is everyone else in the damn apartment I’m living in, is the learning in this hamstrung format worth the price they are asking me to pay?”

California lost more than 21,000 undergraduates, as well as more than 100,000 community college students. New York, which was hit harder than any state during the first wave of COVID and has suffered more than 53,000 deaths, has 29,000 fewer undergraduates and almost 30,000 fewer community college students enrolled today than it did a year ago. Other states with large numbers of empty chairs are Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Delaware and Kansas.

The pandemic has accelerated the decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities. In the spring of 2019, the last full year before the COVID crisis, the number of English majors had fallen 4.8% from the year before. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of English majors fell another 5% or almost 7,000 students.

In the past year, NSCRC reports English majors have fallen an additional 10.2% or 13,000 students. History departments has fared slightly better, losing 1.7% of their students between 2018 and 2019, 2.4% between 2019 and 2020, and 4.1% of their students in the latest report.

Part of the reason for this decline is students’ concerns about the cost of a four-year humanities degree and the value they represent on the job market.

“I think students looking at the humanities are really asking what’s the return on investment,” says Shapiro. “In the United States we have earnings data available for college graduates by institution and major, and these fields don’t look good in those numbers, especially because the earning metrics are measured in a relatively short timeframe after graduation.”

Surprisingly, NSCRC’s report also shows an accelerating decline in the number of students in many STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programmes. After two years of dropping by an average of 1.5%, engineering saw a 3.5% decline year-on-year since 2020.

The number of students in physical science programmes had dropped by 4.6% in 2019 and 4.7% in 2020; this year it dropped by almost 10,000 or 7.6%. Similarly, after two years of dropping by 1.2%, this year’s figures show that maths and statistics programmes have 2.5% fewer enrollees.

While part of the reason for the decline in physical sciences and engineering enrollees is students’ reluctance to enrol in or stay in programmes during a time when they would have limited access to labs, Shapiro points to a deeper reason.

“These are still very male dominated fields. And we know that men have been more affected than women by the pandemic.”

Overall, the number of men enrolled in higher education declined by 400,000 or 5.5% while the number of women enrolled dropped by 2% or 203,000. At four-year institutions, the decline of male students was almost four times that of females: 2.4% to 0.65%.

Some states buck the trend

Not every state has seen a decline in enrolment. New Hampshire has seen a 10.8% rise in the number of post-secondary students since last year, while Utah posted a 4.7% rise. West Virginia, one of the country’s poorest states, also bucked the national trend, seeing a 2.8% year-on-year increase in the number of students.

As the flagship university in a small state, West Virginia University is used to facing demographic challenges. According to George Zimmerman, executive director for admissions and recruitment at West Virginia University, the university – which, in addition to West Virginia, draws students from neighbouring states Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky – expects the number of undergraduates to hold steady, at 21,000.

In order to maintain this year’s freshman class at last year’s level of 4,900, the university undertook an ambitious virtual recruitment programme. The virtual college fairs resembled online professional conferences with presentations, chat rooms or Zoom rooms and talks one-on-one with representatives of the university to get more information.

These, along with virtual high school visits and virtual open houses and webinars combined with traditional outreach by telephone, buoyed the university’s enrolment.

The virtual outreach had an unexpected effect: attracting students from outside West Virginia University’s primary market and its secondary market (from mid-Atlantic states such as New York, New Jersey and Maryland).

“We are seeing an increase of between 5% and 7% in deposits paid by students from outside our primary and secondary recruiting markets,” Zimmerman told University World News.