Enrollment for most forms of postsecondary education in the United States continued to decline three years after nationwide lockdowns forced many students to temporarily continue their degrees online, according to a new analysis from the National Student Clearinghouse.
Public four-year institutions saw a 0.8% enrollment decline as of spring 2023, a somewhat less severe decrease than the 1.2% decline recorded in 2022 but more pronounced than the 0.3% decline in 2021 and the 0.2% decline in 2020. Private four-year nonprofit institutions meanwhile witnessed a 1.0% decrease in 2023, compared to the 1.2% decrease in 2022, the 0.4% decrease in 2021, and the 0.6% decrease in 2020.
There are currently 7.1 million students enrolled in public four-year colleges and 3.9 million students enrolled in private four-year nonprofit colleges, marking drops from 7.3 million and 4.0 million enrolled students, respectively, from spring 2019, the last year which was not affected by the lockdowns.
“Undergraduates at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions are still declining but at slower rates,” the analysis from the National Student Clearinghouse summarized. “Total postsecondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels.”
Community college enrollment nevertheless increased 0.5% as of spring 2023, a phenomenon driven by “dual enrolled high school students and freshmen,” while the number of students pursuing graduate or professional degrees plummeted 2.2% from last year.
The postsecondary education marketplace has been critically disrupted by the lockdowns and the advent of virtual instruction, realities which increasingly prompted students to question the time and funds they devote toward their college degrees.
“The phenomenon of students sitting out of college seems to be more widespread. It’s not just the community colleges anymore,” Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the National Student Clearinghouse, said in an interview last year. “That could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself. I think if that were the case, this is much more serious than just a temporary pandemic-related disruption.”
Elevated levels of student debt, which officials in the Biden administration are seeking to address through an executive order to cancel $10,000 in loans for every borrower earning less than $125,000, have also prompted many students to pause or discontinue their education. The debt forgiveness policy was recently examined by the Supreme Court, which is expected to release an opinion on the controversial move within the next month.
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Lockdowns also severely diminished learning outcomes at the primary and secondary levels. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that average reading scores for nine-year-olds plummeted five points and average mathematics scores dropped seven points, marking the first score decline for reading in three decades and the first score decline for mathematics in the history of the initiative. Stanford University economist and Hoover Institution senior fellow Eric Hanushek revealed in a recent study that learning losses could cause affected students to lose between 2% and 9% of their lifetime earnings as they miss the opportunity to learn critical skills, reducing prospects for future nationwide economic growth.
Parents concerned about the impact of lockdowns on education have removed their children from government schools at an unprecedented rate. The number of homeschooled students increased from 2.7 million in 2020 to 3.1 million in 2023, according to a study from the National Home Education Research Institute.