US College Enrolment Has Plummeted the Most in Over Half a Century

Image Credit: iStock, Lucia Gajdosikova

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Americans gave up on university in record numbers during the pandemic, and many of them aren’t headed back to the classroom any time soon.

That’s the worrying picture painted by new data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on Thursday. In the most recent fall semester, undergraduate enrollment fell 3.1% from a year earlier, or by 465,300 students.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

College enrollment has been falling steadily since 2012, a result of lower birth rates and more people pursuing work straight out of high school. The pandemic has simply turbocharged the trend. Since early 2020, there has been a 6.6% drop in undergraduate enrollment, meaning more than 1 million fewer students. It’s the largest two-year decrease in over 50 years.

Rising wages have made minimum-wage jobs more appealing to young people — for example, non-managerial jobs in leisure and hospitality pay 15% more than a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But decades of research still shows post-secondary education leads to more earnings. An American with a bachelor’s degree makes a median of $2.8 million during their career, according to a Georgetown University study, or 75% more than those with only a high school diploma. That’s still not persuading enough people to stick around on campus:

  • American community colleges have been hit the worst, with a 13% decline in enrollment during the pandemic, but bachelor’s degree programs at four-year colleges account for half the total number of fewer students.
  • While there was hope those who took a gap year in 2020 because of pandemic uncertainty would come back in 2021, only 2% of 2020 high school graduates who didn’t enroll in college after graduating did in fall 2021.

“That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself,” Doug Shapiro, the head of research at National Student Clearinghouse, told NPR.

More to Go: Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota, estimates the US college population will decline 15% between 2025 and 2029. In the meantime, tell your kids if they want a good job, don’t be like Reed College drop-out Steve Jobs.