College Enrollment Declines Deepen

06/03/22 10:42AM EDT

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College Enrollment Declines Deepen - 6 3 2022 10 36 44 AM

College enrollment continued to decline by -4.7% YoY in spring 2022. Since the start of the pandemic, total undergraduate enrollment has fallen -9.4%. (The New York Times)

NH: College enrollment (the total count of both full-time and part-time students) fell for the fifth straight semester in spring 2022, with total undergraduate enrollment down -4.7% and graduate and professional student enrollment down -1.0% YoY.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic (see “College Enrollment Continues to Fall” and “College Enrollment Fell for 2nd Consecutive Year”), two-year colleges again saw the biggest declines.

While enrollment in public colleges and universities fell by -5.0% overall, community college enrollment was down -7.8% YoY. Overall, since spring 2020, undergraduate enrollment has fallen by -9.4%, or nearly 1.4M students. Community colleges have made up the bulk of that decline (about 60%), shedding 827K students.

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Early in the pandemic, it was an open question whether enrollment would recover as more schools reopened and classes resumed. But at this point, it’s clear that the declines have been driven by more than just Covid-19.

Doug Shapiro, executive director for the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), notes that “there’s a broader question about the value of college…particularly concerns about student debt and paying for college and potential labor market returns.”

The enrollment numbers by program type offer more evidence for this. To the extent that colleges are seeing growth in enrollment, it's largely in vocational programs. Just as we observed from 2019 to 2021 (see “Skilled Trades Defy the College Enrollment Decline”), enrollment in programs like construction, agriculture, mechanics and repair, and culinary services keeps increasing, but this growth is dwarfed by the slide in enrollment in liberal arts programs. 

Changes in total college enrollment often reflect changes in the size of demographic cohorts. From 2000 to 2011, steadily rising enrollment in part reflected the fact there were more children reaching age 18 each year.

Since 2011, the YoY trend has been negative. But over the last few years, there has no major YoY trend in the number of 18-year-olds. Foreign students who stayed out of the US during the pandemic are returning, but at lower numbers than before.

What are the students who might have otherwise enrolled in college doing? They could be taking a gap year. They could also be still taking classes, just not in a college environment. My bet, however, is that they're working.

The job market for teens and young adults is the best it has been in 20 years. Teenage employment now exceeds pre-pandemic levels, and teen wage growth far exceeds that of any other age bracket.

It's not hard to imagine why a young person would forgo community college when some babysitting gigs are now paying $30 an hour

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ABOUT NEIL HOWE

Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

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