Many Young People Saying No to College Again This Year

Enrollment decline is shaping up as biggest two-year drop in at least 50 years

Teenager studying at home
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Early data on fall enrollment in U.S. colleges shows undergraduate numbers declined again this year—except at highly selective institutions, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. It may be a sign that many young people are taking advantage of the labor shortage to earn some money instead, an executive there said.

Key Takeaways

  • Early data shows undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.2% this year after falling 3.4% in 2020, contributing to what would be the worst two-year decline in at least 50 years.
  • Highly selective institutions were the only ones that saw an increase in enrollment.
  • Community colleges felt the brunt of the decline, which may be a sign that some prospective students are taking advantage of the worker shortage to earn money instead.

As of Sept. 23, undergraduate enrollment was down 3.2% from a year earlier, according to the latest update from the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse, a student data tracker. That’s on top of a 3.4% decline last year.

“Enrollments are not getting better, they’re still getting worse,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, during a media call on Tuesday. If the preliminary data bears out, “it would be the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years in the U.S.” 

Why the sharp decline even though COVID-19 vaccines are now widely available, schools are open for in-person classes, and the number of deaths are down sharply from the peaks of 2020? While the group’s data reports don’t address the causes, with wages increasing and jobs plentiful, some may be opting to work instead.

“It seems like a lot of young people are going to work instead of going to college,” Shapiro said, “especially low-wage workers or students from low-income families, who’ve been lured away by this kind of temporary hitch in the labor market where wages are increasing.”

Indeed, public two-year colleges—often significantly less expensive than private or state universities—fared the worst, with a 5.6% drop in enrollment (though better than 2020’s 9% rout.) 

Public four-year colleges fell 2.3%, worse than last year’s 0.8% slide. Enrollment in private nonprofit four-year colleges went down 0.7%. Further, undergraduate enrollment fell in every age group, with 25- to 29-year-olds posting the steepest decline (-8.2%), while enrollment for 18- to 20-year-olds went down 2.6% and for 21- to 24-year-olds, it fell 3.2%.

The only institutions to buck the trend were highly selective colleges and universities, both public and private nonprofit, where enrollments actually rose. Highly selective private nonprofit colleges saw an increase of 4.3%, which brought them back up to pre-pandemic levels, and highly selective state schools rose 1%. Publications including the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reported that applications to certain highly selective colleges skyrocketed after many of them made standardized test scores optional because of the pandemic.

Overall, the early data suggests undergraduate enrollment has fallen 6.5% in 2020 and 2021 from 2019 levels. 

“What we’re seeing here is two troughs, one right after the other. There was simply no upside from the recession, just a downside we’re seeing now from the recovery, or at least the recovery in the job market,” Shapiro said. 

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