The College Dilemma: Enrollment Rates During COVID-19

image of college students

The pandemic has caused a dramatic drop in college enrollment, with California experiencing the largest decrease in enrollment this spring. Local and national news outlets, along with research centers, are digging into the reasons behind this while dissecting socioeconomic and racial trends. 

The Data 

New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicate that undergraduate enrollment fell again this spring, down nearly 5% from a year ago. That means 727,000 fewer students. NPR notes that, “Community colleges, which often enroll more low-income students and students of color, remained hardest hit by far, making up more than 65% of the total undergraduate enrollment losses this spring.” 

According to Inside Higher Ed, Asian, Black and Latinx student enrollment decreased by 4.8%, 8.8% and 7.3%, respectively. Latinx enrollment, which was increasing prior to the pandemic, fell 13.7% at community colleges this spring. The California State University, the largest four-year system in the nation, witnessed a record high overall enrollment in fall 2020. However, the number of first-time freshmen dropped significantly. In fall 2020 UC enrollment generally held steady for Californians but declined for nonresidents (Los Angeles Times).

The Reasoning Behind College Enrollment Decline 

“Pandemic paralysis” and precarious financial situations contributed to enrollment deadline. In the past, community colleges have been havens for high-school graduates and adults looking to pick up credits during a poor job market. COVID-19 forced administrators and faculty to step back from in-person recruitment and services, and as a result, students who needed those valuable support systems were shut out (Hechinger Report). Technology is a huge barrier for enrollment, not to mention that remote instruction has worn out its welcome for many. 

Angel Vasquez, an 18-year-old from Providence, Rhode Island, considered attending a community college after deferring his plans to enroll in a four-year school. When his father lost his job, though, Angel found an overnight gig stocking freight at a warehouse (Hechinger Report). This story rings true for would-be college students who pursued full-time or part-time work to support their families. 

Child care costs and logistics can also be a critical factor for community college students, about 30% of whom are parents. Moreover, the pandemic may be accelerating trends that were already contributing to enrollment declines, one of which is students questioning the value of higher education. Adult learners in particular want programs with clear pathways to good jobs. For better or for worse, COVID-19 has shaken the narrative of attending college immediately or soon after high school. 

The Climb Back

It’s too early to predict what fall enrollment across community colleges will look like. Will students return to college or enroll in college for the first time — or will life challenges get in the way? Our earlier blog on President Biden’s American Families Plan discusses how community colleges might regain enrollment with additional government funding. 

Enrollment in master’s degree programs actually increased 5.2% and doctoral degree enrollments increased 3.6% (Inside Higher Ed). Doug Shapiro, who leads the research center, contends, “It’s kind of the educational equivalent of the rich getting richer.” In other words, the rise in graduate student enrollment, in conjunction with community colleges’ declining enrollment, could widen the educational gap between the “haves and have-nots” (Inside Higher Ed). 

In some ways, the pandemic has reinforced the value of a college degree. Americans who hold a college degree were more likely to stay employed during the pandemic. In other ways, the pandemic has called into question the very point of higher education itself. 
I will conclude with a quote from American historian and social critic Christopher Lasch in The Agony of the American Left (1969): “In an advanced technological society, higher education for the first time becomes a mass industry, chiefly because of the unprecedented demand for highly trained personnel but also because in the United States a college degree has been somewhat arbitrarily defined as a requirement for high-status jobs, even where there is no demonstrable connection between the job and the training it is said to require.”

by Elena D. 


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