The Post-Pandemic College Enrollment Decline

October 22, 2021

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has impacted nearly every facet of daily life, but few come with as long-lasting implications as the recent downturn in college enrollment. While colleges have experienced a steady drop-off in enrollment for several years now, the past year has seen the sharpest decline of the past decade. The dramatic loss of student enrollment points to the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a dire need for local and federal support for higher education. 

How Does Current Enrollment Compare to Previous Years?

According to new data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, as of spring of 2021, national enrollment has fallen to 16.9 million students. To offer some perspective, that means about 600,000 fewer students enrolled in college than in the previous year. When the research zooms in on undergraduates in particular, data shows that enrollment is down about 5% from the previous year. 

These numbers are staggering, but are they here to stay? While it is difficult to gauge how long the decline will last, experts remain concerned. Many colleges continue to plan an exciting return to in-person learning, and higher education shows signs of returning to normal. However, enrollment has yet to pull out of its current nosedive. 

When compared to enrollment from the previous year, higher education institutions experienced a consistent pattern of decline. When broken down into sectors, the decrease in enrollment remains clear.

  • Private schools: For-profit schools experienced a 1.5% drop in enrollment, while nonprofits had a 0.8% drop-off rate.
  • Public schools: Public four-year universities saw a 0.6% decline.
  • Community colleges: Public two-year universities experienced the most dramatic decline, with a 9.5% drop in community college enrollment.

How Widespread Is the College Enrollment Decline?

Most concerningly, the college enrollment decline is not unique to any one sector. Instead, undergraduate-level institutions of all types have suffered from a drop-off in enrollment — at least 2.9% — from the previous year. The massive student decrease of 600,000 individuals is equal to the number of Americans who lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This decline was largely universal across the nation. Undergraduate enrollment dipped across nearly every state, with the steepest declines in South Dakota, New Mexico, Alaska, and Mississippi. Meanwhile, graduate enrollment continued to rise in forty states, including major increases in Maine, Georgia, and Mississippi. 

While growing graduate school enrollment can be counted as a win for higher education, these disconcerting numbers point to a looming problem in higher education at large. 

A disproportionate number of undergraduate students from underprivileged communities were forced or decided to delay their pursuit of a degree, while more privileged graduate students were able to continue to invest in their education. Though not all grad programs saw an increase in enrollees, the present disparity adds to an already prevalent equity gap between privileged and underserved communities. 

What is Causing This Dramatic Decline? 

Updated enrollment data points to a clear cause for the steep decline: the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The final numbers for the 2021 school year didn’t solve a mystery in higher education, rather it confirmed a looming fear — that the pandemic is having a dramatic impact on students pursuing their first higher ed degree. 

How exactly is the pandemic aggravating the decline in college enrollment? The Coronavirus has brought with it a host of challenges for young college students, including:

Loss of Employment

About 47% of employees with a degree higher than a high school diploma were given the option to telecommute to their jobs during the pandemic. On the other hand, only about 4% of employees with just a high school diploma received the same opportunity. With this statistic in mind, it is clear that college students still working on their associate or undergraduate degrees were less likely to telecommute. As a result, many lost their jobs, especially if their place of employment was shut down by the pandemic. 

Faced with unemployment, some students had to choose between supporting themselves and their families or continuing their education. With no way to pay tuition, still others were forced to drop their college ambitions entirely. 


Research shows that college towns experienced higher-than-average rates of COVID-19 during the past year when students returned to campus or housing. In college towns and beyond, students were often forced to put a pause on their education after becoming ill. In other cases, students needed to return to work to support their families or return home as caregivers when relatives became sick with COVID-19. 

‌With the long-term effects of COVID-19 still being discovered, it is safe to say that many students or families who became sick are still dealing with the aftermath long after the semester is over. 

Struggles with Remote Learning

It may come as no surprise that many college students felt that their learning suffered during the pandemic. Students attributed a decline in success to struggles with remote learning, a feeling of disconnection from their institutions, and difficulty focusing in an online setting.

‌Dissatisfaction with remote learning has dissuaded many students from enrolling or re-enrolling in college classes. Many students fear an imminent return to online classes if COVID-19 resurfaces come fall. 

Distrust of Degree’s Value

Recent surveys indicate that about 65% of college students feel that the value of higher education no longer outweighs the cost. This number has steadily risen over the course of the pandemic — with 57% sharing this sentiment in December, and only 49% feeling disenchanted last August. These worries likely stem from increased anxiety over making ends meet in a struggling post-COVID economy. 

‌With less hope of landing a job after graduation and a waning sense of trust in the value of a degree, the latest high school graduates are less likely to pursue a higher degree than their predecessors. 

Time Away From Education

No matter what barriers college students face, it is important that they return to their studies as quickly as possible. Experts say that as students move further away from their high school graduation, they are less likely to enroll in college — largely because they are faced with more career and familial responsibilities as time goes on.  

Though enrollment didn’t dip as low as some experts feared, the decline remains a major problem for leaders in higher education to solve. The extent of the damage will be determined by how many students will be able to return to class in the upcoming semesters. 

How Does the Drop in Enrollment Impact Higher Education? 

It remains to be seen whether colleges will be able to quickly return to normal enrollment numbers in the forthcoming fall semester. Schools are hopeful that a promise to return to normalcy will persuade frustrated students. While experts continue to monitor registration numbers, there are several elements that may continue to affect enrollment. Developing factors include:

Restrictions on International Students

International students continue to be impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. Even as vaccination rates rise, it remains challenging for international college students to enroll or return to their institutions. With about one million international students enrolled in American institutions, their absence is no small matter.

Dramatic Losses for Community Colleges

As a gateway to four-year universities, graduate programs, and beyond, community colleges hold the key to national college enrollment. This makes it all the more worrisome that community colleges suffered the most dramatic decline in enrollment this year. With fewer community college enrollees, it is likely that four-year universities and graduate schools will see a further decline in numbers as the high school classes of 2020 and 2021 move through the higher education pipeline. 

Financial Impact

With the financial impact of COVID-19 continuing to develop, it is likely that Americans will continue to feel its effects for years to come. As a result, current college students say they are more worried than ever about paying their bills. 67% worry about meeting the demands of their tuition, 62% are stressed over their other financial obligations, and at least 80% of students are worried about landing a viable job after graduation.

However, it is the lasting financial impact of under-enrollment that is most concerning. Earnings for people with doctoral or professional degrees are almost triple what a high school graduate earns, while Bachelor’s degree-holders fall roughly in the middle. In short, new high school graduates who pursue higher education are more likely to earn better wages than their peers. For those who are unable or unwilling to attend college, the financial struggles of today are likely to lead to more financial struggles in the future.

Gaps in Equity

No matter what the future holds, the enrollment decline has created a more glaring divide between graduate and undergraduate programs. Graduate programs largely continued to grow this year, despite the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Because of this, students who already possess degrees continue to earn more education, while students who are new to higher education are more likely to drop out. Experts worry that the gaps in skills and education will have a lasting impact that may prove too difficult to overcome.

In a contemporary example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Americans with a degree were more likely to maintain their employment — or get rehired — during the pandemic than their non-degree-holding counterparts. Unemployment rates were far higher for people who only had a high school education. 

Ultimately, the college enrollment decline caused by the pandemic is pushing undergraduates and community college students further away from the improved job security and benefits afforded by a higher degree. It is up to colleges to continue to bridge the gap between affected students and their degree-earning potential. 

How Is the Decline Impacting Specific Communities? 

Without a doubt, community colleges have been the most impacted community within higher education. With enrollment down at least 9% in both semesters of the 2020-2021 school year, the steady drop-off of enrolled students is a major concern for community colleges.  Unfortunately, this dramatic impact is linked to the disproportionate effect that the pandemic has had on low-income and underrepresented students.  

Beyond community colleges, there are several patterns that emerged from the most recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, including:

  • White student enrollment declined by 7.7%. 
  • Black student enrollment declined by 7.4%.
  • Latinx student enrollment declined by 5.3%.
  • Asian student enrollment declined by 3.2%.
  • Native American student enrollment declined by 12.5%.
  • International student enrollment declined by 15.6%.
  • College-age student enrollment (between the ages of 18 and 24) declined by 5.3%.
  • Nontraditional student enrollment (between the age of 25 and 29 and adults 29 and older) declined by 3.5% and 2.1%, respectively.

Across the board, the highest decline has been seen among the high school class of 2020, who finished their secondary education at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This decline was exasperated in low-income high schools, where the class of 2020 saw declines in college enrollment upwards of 11% from their predecessors. 

What Are Schools Doing to Try to Increase Student Enrollment?

It is difficult to estimate how many students will return to their higher education pursuits in the upcoming year, but rising vaccine rates and national re-openings provide hope that the worst of pandemic-caused economic damage is in the past. While there is no quick fix to repair the damage that the Coronavirus has caused to higher education, experts say that community colleges, universities, high schools, and civic leaders will need to band together to help affected students get back on their feet and return to class. 

While it is always challenging to help high school students transition to their community colleges and four-year universities, pandemic era enrollment has created unprecedented challenges. To combat low enrollment, colleges and outreach programs have begun to implement strategies such as:

Gaining a Better Understanding of Student Needs 

Newly graduated high school students are facing more uncertain times than those that came before them. Some of the rising challenges for prospective college students include:

  • Not knowing where to find resources about two-year and four-year colleges and their cost
  • Finding it difficult access to scholarships
  • Not being able to tour or visit schools they might want to attend
  • Struggling to balance the admissions process with daily demands
  • Not being able to plan during the uncertainty of the pandemic

With many college-planning events and counseling sessions canceled during the pandemic, students are finding it harder than ever to plan for college. Institutions can help students by reaching out with resources and filling in the gaps left by their high schools. 

Ramping Up Outreach Efforts

Email campaigns are no longer enough to connect with students. Colleges can help encourage nervous youth to apply by engaging with prospective students on a one-on-one basis whenever possible. Colleges are helping students by responding more quickly, trying to build relationships in their community, and finding new avenues —like social media — to connect with busy young people.

Offering Shorter Courses

In addition to semester-long courses, many colleges are offering shortened or accelerated courses and credential programs. With the job market more uncertain than ever, students are showing an interest in moving quickly through their higher education. Colleges are stepping up by offering courses that accommodate a wider variety of schedules and extracurricular obligations. 

Bolstering Student Support

Now more than ever, students are seeking support when it comes to learning more about how their education can relate to their career path. Colleges are aiming to attract more enrollees by ramping up student support through the admission, registration, and graduation processes.

Pushing for a Return to Campus

Most importantly, colleges are pushing for a return to “near-normal” for the upcoming fall semester. What does near-normal look like for many schools?

  • In-person classes: Many colleges are promising to bring as many classes back to campus as possible. Most institutions are implementing a mix of virtual and in-person courses.
  • Mandates and precautions: Depending on the state, many schools plan to impose mask mandates, provide COVID-19 testing, and limit campus activities to continue protecting students.
  • Vaccine requirements: Some schools will require students to be vaccinated prior to returning to campus in the fall. Unvaccinated students will only have access to online courses.
  • Monitoring conditions: Many schools are returning to campus with clear plans in place should COVID-19 make a resurgence during the upcoming year.   

Moving Forward

It may take years to truly see the full impact of today’s efforts by colleges, communities, and counselors to regain lost enrollment. However, it is more important than ever to press onward. Institutions and supporting organizations must encourage students to continue to pursue their higher education goals — whether those be two-year or four-year degrees.

If you are looking for more information on how to best serve students through online education, check out the latest resources from Caduceus International Publishing, your partner in health science education.

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