College and university enrollments plummeted across the United States this spring, deepening an ongoing crisis that many believe is showing signs of rebounding now.
“The decline in college enrollment appears to be getting worse,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which released its latest enrollment numbers Thursday.
“While there may be signs of a nascent recovery, particularly in a slight increase in freshmen, the numbers are small, and it remains to be seen whether they will translate into a larger recovery of students. freshman next fall,” he said. said in a call with reporters.
Figures show that 662,000 fewer students enrolled in undergraduate programs in spring 2022 compared to the previous spring – a drop of 4.7%, which is more pronounced than the fall in fall 2021 To date, the number of undergraduate students has dropped by nearly 1.4 million students or 9.4% during the pandemic.
As has been the case with previous enrollment updates, the public sector – community colleges and four-year institutions combined – saw the steepest drop, of more than 604,000 students or a 5% decline. Community colleges continued to suffer the most, with 351,000 fewer students or a 7.8% decline.
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Perhaps most notably, enrollment among black freshmen fell 6.5%, compounding previous losses and leading to an 18.7% decrease among black freshmen — 8,400 fewer — since spring 2020.
“I thought we would start to see some of the declines start to come down a bit this quarter,” Shapiro said. “I’m surprised it seems to be getting worse.”
The enrollment data comes as growing numbers of high school students and their families begin to consider alternatives to higher education – both due to tuition fees and a growing body of data putting highlight the potential for income through other avenues.
In a major speech earlier this year, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who himself graduated from a technical high school where he majored in automotive programs, urged school leaders to better integrate workforce skills in their programs to better prepare students for life. after graduation, whether by entering the labor market directly, earning a technical degree, or enrolling in a four-year institution.
Indeed, new enrollment data shows that enrollment in two-year college and skilled trades programs increased significantly this spring, including mechanics and repair, cooking, construction and precision and production – although only the growth of construction majors has led to pre-pandemic enrollment levels.
New research from Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Workforce shows that at a third of colleges and universities in the United States, more than half of enrolled students earn less than high school graduates 10 years later – just the latest ripple in the ongoing disruption of the higher education space, which has accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic and has many young people asking, “Is the university is worth it?
While that sentiment is growing among Republicans, according to polls showing the party’s heightened skepticism and distrust of higher education institutions, that doesn’t appear to be the case for the majority of Americans.
A survey of 1,000 registered voters by The Winston Group, conducted for the American Council on Education, which was published in March exclusively on Inside Higher Education, shows that twice as many Americans think higher education is ” generally on the right track” than they think. down the wrong path, with a plurality saying they didn’t know. The results are not significantly different from how respondents answered the same question in 2019 – although they are more positive in their opinion of higher education than they were in 2017.
Shapiro said the new enrollment data suggests something more is going on than just the pandemic.
“It’s not just low-income communities that are primarily served by community colleges,” he said. “This suggests that there is a broader question about the value of a college education and in particular concerns about student debt and college payment and potential returns in the labor market.”
The Biden administration had tried to inject some stability into the higher education system during a moment of volatile change, with the reality of a prolonged decline in enrollment occurring alongside renewed recognition by Democrats that students need options other than four-year degrees – and in particular options that provide degrees, certificates and credentials that match the needs of the local workforce.
Among other things, the administration is making it easier to qualify for loan forgiveness for borrowers who work in the public service, those who have suffered a debilitating injury, and those who have been defrauded by for-profit colleges that misrepresent income. potential, placement rates or have closed without Attention. The White House is also determined to increase the federal Pell Grant, sending hundreds of millions of dollars in additional aid to historically black colleges and universities and considering broader student debt forgiveness.
Even if enrollment figures were to stabilize, it is unclear whether colleges and universities are staffed with the appropriate levels to receive them given the current employment landscape that is wreaking havoc across all sectors.
The latest enrollment data also comes from a new report from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators that details staffing shortages and retention issues that threaten to impact office capacity. financial aid programs from colleges and universities to help students manage tuition payments and stay compliant with federal and state regulations.
“We are sounding the alarm that many financial aid offices are severely understaffed, which could create cascading problems for these colleges and universities, both in their ability to adequately serve students while remaining compliant with the rules. federal and state,” said Justin Draeger. , the president of the association, in a press release.
Of the more than 500 establishments that responded to the initial survey, almost 80% expressed concern about their ability to be administratively competent in the future, while more than half, 56%, expressed concern about their ability to adequately serve students with different enrollment levels.
Student aid officials say the responses paint a grim picture of a once manageable difficulty that has turned into a crisis for many financial aid offices.
“College presidents have a lot to do, and while they often rush from fire to fire, it’s an area that shouldn’t be overlooked,” Draeger said. “Chronic understaffing will increase the risk of fines and potential liabilities for failing to follow federal and state rules on the road, and more importantly, likely means students will face reduced service.”