Pandemic sinks college enrollment again, but fall looks brighter

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A student walks near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA on April 23, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

(NerdWallet) — College enrollment has fallen for the second semester in a row compared with year-earlier periods. And the drop through the spring of this year was worse than it was in fall 2020.

For the spring semester, overall enrollment declined 3.5% from the previous spring, according to estimates released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on June 10. Last fall, enrollment fell 2.6% year over year.

The estimates weren’t surprising to Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Attainment Network, but they were alarming. “To see continued enrollment decline again into the spring has to give the entire education sector and everyone associated with it a lot of pause,” DeBaun says.

Analysts say that many of the concerns and roadblocks that influenced students’ decision whether to enroll last fall were still present for the spring 2021 term. They named several factors that contributed to the continued decline:

  • Instruction was still largely online.
  • Economic uncertainties were still present.
  • Vaccines didn’t become widely available until after the semester began.

Community colleges took brunt of the decline

Enrollment at community colleges fell 9.5% in the spring as compared with the year-ago period — and that was after a 10.1% decrease year over year in fall 2020.

“This is a big drop,” says Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “This is the largest one-year enrollment decline for community colleges … in a decade. It is a huge decline, and the magnitude of declines is so big, I think it will take community colleges years to recover from these losses, if it is possible at all.”

At the College of DuPage, the largest community college in Illinois, enrollment fell 9.4% in fall 2020 compared with the year-ago period. Many factors led to the decrease, says DuPage President Brian Caputo, including a declining state population and challenges presented by the pandemic.

For some of the students at DuPage, the pandemic forced them to work and support their families rather than attend college, Caputo says. “It was a pretty tough situation for some of our students, and I think that [it was] for community college students across the country.”

DuPage expects a further decrease of 6.5% this fall as compared to the year-ago period. The school expects to have at least some in-person instruction in half of its classes, but returning to the pre-pandemic level of 80% is a challenge for a commuter school like DuPage, Caputo says.

College enrollment in fall 2021

Much of what has kept students away, including vaccine access and a lack of in-person instruction, will change this fall.

Overall, analysts are expecting an increase in college enrollment for fall 2021. Applications are up from last fall, and those increases are most pronounced among international students, Ryu says.

But not all of the signs are encouraging: The number of students who have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA — required to qualify for Pell Grants, federal student loans and other forms of financial aid — is 5.3% below last year’s level. And among high-minority high schools, 8.7% fewer students have completed applications.

“Lack of resources, health implications of the pandemic itself, child care issues” are some of the challenges still facing students, Ryu says. “We are not completely out of the woods in that respect.”

It’s not too late to go to college this fall

Fall 2021 is close, but there is still time to enroll in college for the coming semester.

If you’re considering enrolling for the fall semester or have already enrolled, fill out the FAFSA to be considered for grants, scholarships or work-study aid that can help pay for college. The FAFSA deadline for the 2021-22 school year is June 30, 2022, but it’s important to apply as early as possible because many colleges award money on a first-come, first-served basis.

Community colleges are good options for students considering picking a college to attend this fall as they are typically cheaper and offer more flexible application deadlines than four-year schools do. And for those who intend to get a four-year degree, there are community colleges that work with students to make sure all credits transfer and that no extra courses are taken.

Going to college pays off in the long run. The median weekly earnings of someone with a high school diploma are $781, while weekly earnings increase to $938 for someone with an associate degree and to $1,305 for someone with a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2020 analysis from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The cost of lost opportunity” will affect those who didn’t complete or earn some sort of credential, Ryu says. “Their potential for earning power and opportunities to move up in social mobility will be actually put on pause. As time goes on, I think it will become more difficult for them to come back.”

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Colin Beresford writes for NerdWallet. Email: cberesford@nerdwallet.com.

The article Pandemic Sinks College Enrollment Again, but Fall Looks Brighter originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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