College Enrollment News Insights

The Great Interruption: What Do COVID-influenced Enrollment Patterns Portend for Higher Education?

Bill Conley & Bob Massa

As published in Inside Higher Ed, February 28, 2022

Much has been written about the “Great Resignation”. The sheer scale is obvious: about 25 million workers left their jobs in the second half of 2021 alone. More ambiguous is the downstream impact on the labor markets.  Where will people choose to work, how will they prefer to work, remote or in-person, and what will employers do to balance their needs with the shifting demands of employees?

Likewise, higher education’s “Great Interruption” (our term), the decline in straight from high school to college enrollment, and an uptick in “stop-outs”- already enrolled students hitting the pause button on their educations- has been seismic.  In fall 2020, 20.7% fewer students than in 2019 enrolled directly in college from high school, and since the onset of the pandemic, about one million fewer students are enrolled in college overall.  More than one in four students enrolled in college in 2019 did not return the following fall, the highest rate since 2012.

As in so many spheres of life, COVID is having an accelerated impact on already concerning trends.  For higher education, these sober statistics are acute signals of a decade-long enrollment decline of 13%. Perhaps the good news in these recent trends is that it helps enrollment leaders forget about the daunting long-term demographics that the  Chronicle of Higher Education’s Eric Hoover says await them in 2035.

Higher education leaders have not been blind to the long-term enrollment trends, but there seems to be an operating premise that their institution will be an outlier and thrive.  Certainly, the declining numbers have not impacted all sectors uniformly. Since the fall of 2020, community colleges have taken the biggest hit, but according to the National Clearinghouse Research Center (NCRS), in 2021, half of the decline in college enrollments from the previous year was accounted for by four-year colleges.  And, of course, the media reminds us that for both private and public elite institutions, the last two admission cycles have been banner years. The NCRS data starkly contrasts enrollment trends by selectivity- less selective four-year colleges are getting hammered.

The ”Great Interruption” has exposed very concerning trends in the higher education student enrollment market. 

As suggested by the sharp decline in community college enrollments, low-income students have been disproportionally diverted from the college pathway.  Over the last two cycles, FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) submissions have declined significantly, most among students attending low-income high schools

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article (The Missing Hispanic Students- Daily Briefing 2/17/2022), Sarah Brown observed: “Hundreds of thousands of Hispanic students have opted out of college during the pandemic. The trend among Hispanic students has changed more significantly than for any other demographic group because their numbers were increasing before the pandemic.” These are disturbing trends for our nation and colleges, who expected that the rapidly declining white demographic would be buoyed by increasing Hispanic and low-income cohorts.

Long a concern for higher education, male enrollments continued to perform poorly in the pandemic years.  When female enrollment is already at a record high 59.5%, it is a troubling sign that between fall 2019 and fall 2021, male enrollment declined by 10.2% compared to a 6.8% drop for females.  The Inside Higher Education headline (September 8, 2021), “A Record Number of Men ‘Give Up’ on College” sends a clarion call of impending crisis for males in higher education.   As cited in a Wall Street Journal article, “in the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues.”

It is entirely likely that the roiling pandemic economy and labor market have acerbated the male crisis in higher education.  The Washington Post observed that “enrollment trends, survey data and similar signals show ‘education for the skilled trades appears to be returning to fashion’.” The article cited a survey that found only 48% of high school students polled in September 2021 were interested in going on to college directly from high school compared to 71% as recently as May 2020.  Another study connected the dots between males and skilled labor when it observed: “more men than women dropped out of college during the pandemic because men were overrepresented in fields where hands-on work is essential.”

Then there is the elephant in the room: the rising cost of higher education and its return on investment.  Doug Shapiro, research director at NSC, reflected on the pandemic enrollment trends: “The phenomenon of students sitting out of college seems to be more widespread. It’s not just the community colleges anymore. That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself.” 

In its 2021 annual survey of college graduates, the Strada Education Network found that only half of its respondents believed their college degree was worth the cost. And, likely to worsen the trend in low-income and minority enrollments, a recent study from Georgetown University asserts, according to Emma Whitford of Inside Higher Education, “that nearly a third of colleges and universities leave most students worse off 10 years after enrolling than their peers with only a high school diploma.”

Even before the pandemic’s onset, there was a growing distrust of higher education. According to a Pew Research Center survey in fall 2019, found “that only half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days. About four in ten (38%) say they are having a negative impact – up from 26% in 2012.”

Consistent with the political polarization acerbated by COVID, the uptick in “negative impact” is entirely represented by registered Republicans, according to the Pew study.  The perception that colleges are, by and large, left-leaning in their teaching is likely to have a broader negative influence across the political spectrum.  Even College Confidential threads stitch a cynical fabric of colleges being a good fit for students who are not of liberal orthodoxy.

Like the Great Resignation, the Great Interruption has been of epic scale and raises more questions about the future of higher education than it answers.  But it is not melodramatic to conclude that for far too many colleges and universities, the collateral damage of the Great Interruption will be significant.  If the patterns- declining enrollments of low-income Hispanics and males, as well as growing skepticism of college value and pedagogy- persist after the pandemic becomes endemic, the pressures on enrollment and revenue will mount well before the demographic cliff of the 2030s.  Now is the time to strategically address what this means for your college.

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