2021 Sees Biggest College Enrollment Decline In Half-Century

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Hotspots are still flaring up including on college campuses that returned to in-person learning
Hotspots are still flaring up including on college campuses that returned to in-person learning GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Ethan Miller

A report released Thursday reveals fall college enrollment continued its pandemic decline in 2021 with a drop of 3.1% compared to fall 2020, which continues the two-year trend as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on.

Only four U.S. states broke with the U.S.-wide decline in college enrollment; Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The nationwide decline represents 465,300 students who did not enroll when compared to last year’s numbers. Over 17 million students enrolled in colleges and universities in the fall of 2021.

Amid the pandemic, the two-year total decline was 6.6% — a drop in 1,025,6000 student enrollments — when compared to enrollment in the fall of 2019, the last enrollment before the pandemic began. Those numbers represent the biggest decline in  half century.

Those who chose to wait until 2021 to enroll as the pandemic made safety and money a huge concern for many people in the U.S., but few of those students ended up enrolling in 2021. Only 2% of the students who waited in 2020 ended up enrolling a year later.


Wesleyan University College Row
The rear of 'College Row' at Wesleyan University.
Photo: Wikipedia.org

Private for-profit four-year colleges saw the sharpest decline in enrolment: -11.1%, which translates to a loss of 65,500 students.

“Without a dramatic re-engagement in their education, the potential loss to these students’ earnings and futures is significant, which will greatly impact the nation as a whole in years to come,” Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center who released the report, said of the decline.

However, there are questions about whether college — 4-year or 2-year programs — is worth the price and the time for most students. For years, people said that college would help get jobs yet during the pandemic students graduated into an understandably abysmal jobs market.

This report also comes out as 16 of the U.S.’s top universities and colleges were named in a lawsuit that alleges these higher education institutions colluded to inflate their prices and disenfranchise students on financial aid, seeking to deny them that aid wherever possible.

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