Jan 13, 2022 - Economy

College enrollment plummets — again

Students, faculty and others walk down a campus path amidst a mostly empty University of California-Irvine campus Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

Students walk down a campus path amidst a mostly empty University of California-Irvine campus on Jan. 7. Photo: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Undergraduate enrollment in fall 2021 fell 3.1% over the last year, or by approximately 465,300 students, compared with the previous year, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Why it matters: College enrollment has been on the decline for nearly a decade, but the pandemic is accelerating the trend, raising concerns about a possible generational shift in attitudes about higher education.

By the numbers: Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a 6.6% — more than 1 million students — decline in undergraduate enrollment, per the report.

  • Public two-year colleges remain the hardest hit sector since the pandemic began, with a 13.2% drop since 2019.
  • Students seeking associate's degrees dropped sharply, with enrollment falling 6.2% this year and 14.1% over the last two years.
  • Freshman enrollment stabilized in fall 2021 after seeing a sharp decline in 2020. Still, enrollment among first-year students remains 9.2% lower than pre-pandemic levels.
  • Enrollment in each of the five largest majors — business, health, liberal arts, biology and engineering — fell sharply this year, with liberal arts declining the most, with a 7.6% drop.
  • Graduate student enrollment dropped 0.4%, or 10,800 students.

The big picture: While college enrollment has plummeted throughout the pandemic, it had been on a downward trajectory since 2012.

What they're saying: "Our final look at fall 2021 enrollment shows undergraduates continuing to sit out in droves as colleges navigate yet another year of COVID-19," Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a statement.

  • "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."

Go deeper: The swoon in college enrollment

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