Undergraduate enrollment at universities in the US has been plummeting since the beginning of the pandemic. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment numbers have declined 5.1% since the pandemic started—meaning 938,000 fewer students entered higher education in the fall of 2021 compared with fall 2019.
This decline adds to a decade-long downward trend partly attributed to changes in the US’s demographic mix: the number of young adults in the country is dropping. But worryingly, the drop between 2019 and 2021 is one of “the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years,” according to Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, in an article by the Hechinger Report.
In the early days of the pandemic, many students faced with campus closures and months of virtual learning decided to take a gap year.
Educators expected students to return to campus as vaccination programs started and classrooms opened their doors again. But this has not been the case. Students are still sitting out in large numbers.
One of the more worrying aspects of this situation is that low-income students and those in marginalized groups have been the hardest hit, which has significant societal implications for the short and long term.
Higher education has always been seen as a key driver for social mobility—an important way for communities to transform their economic circumstances.
The pandemic is taking that opportunity away from people from low-income backgrounds and marginalized communities. In addition, we risk losing the gains that had been made in recent years in terms of achieving more diverse participation in higher education in the US. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data show, for example, that Latino enrollment in community colleges had been increasing steadily before the pandemic.
It is unsurprising, though, that community colleges, which typically attract large numbers from those marginalized communities, make up the bulk of the enrollment losses—community colleges made up approximately 65% of the decline from spring 2020 to spring 2021.
In times of hardship, many students from these marginalized communities face a tough choice: to find a job and enter the workforce or to start or continue with their studies. I call this a choice, but most often it is not: some people see no option but to work and help support their families financially. If nothing else, not incurring the additional costs that come with enrollment will certainly make a significant difference to many families.
Interestingly, despite the decline in undergraduate enrollment numbers, graduate education is on the rise. This seems to suggest that those at the bottom of the social and educational chain are being left behind, and those with more privilege continue to move ahead.
I mourn the loss of opportunity for the close to 1 million people in the US alone who have had to make the difficult decision to close a door to education.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.