College enrollment in US continues to decline

America’s college enrollment has fallen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the downward trend since 2018 persists, with millions of fewer students in classrooms, the most ever, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and economists say the impact could worsen labor shortages.

“It’s quite a dangerous proposition for the strength of our national economy,” said Zack Mabel, a Georgetown University researcher.

Despite in-person classes resuming, postsecondary institutions experienced a decline in enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2022, with approximately 1.1 million fewer students, representing a decrease of about 6 percent of total enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Undergraduate student enrollment saw a decrease of more than 1.2 million students, almost 8 percent of total enrollment.

Increasing college tuition, declining birth rates and the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to the decrease, according to Best Colleges, a website that provides information on US colleges and universities. A decline in international and transfer enrollment during the pandemic may also be a factor.

In many states, blacks, Hispanic and low-income students saw the largest decline in college enrollment. In Tennessee’s class of 2021, 35 percent of Hispanic graduates and 44 percent of black graduates enrolled in college, compared with 58 percent of whites.

The cost of running into debt to pay for college is a major factor as President Joe Biden seeks to cancel a large swath of it, but the constitutionality of his plan is now before the Supreme Court.

Student debt has soared over the past several decades. Inflation-adjusted data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that going to college cost $1,545 in the 1968-69 academic year, compared to $29,033 in the 2020-21 school year.

In a study conducted by the US Census Bureau, most adults who had family members enrolled in college for the fall 2021 term reported that their educational plans had been affected. Nearly half of those who canceled their plans said that they couldn’t afford educational expenses due to the pandemic.

Daniel Moody, a recent high school graduate from Memphis, Tennessee, was hired to work as a plumber at a plant and is now earning $24 an hour. He believes he made the right decision in not going to college.

“If I would have gone to college after school, I would be dead broke,” he said. “The type of money we’re making out here, you’re not going to be making that while you’re trying to go to college,” Moody told The Associated Press.

Tennessee made community college free in 2014, resulting in a significant increase in college enrollment rates. But only 53 percent of public high school graduates enrolled in college in 2021, significantly lower than the national average and the rate has now fallen to its lowest point since at least 2009, AP said.

Despite the high cost of tuition, college graduates tend to earn more than those without a degree, according to data from the Labor Statistics Bureau. In 2021, full-time workers 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree earned a median salary that was about $27,000 higher than those with only a high school diploma and no degree, according to the bureau.

People who don’t attend college typically earn 75 percent less over their lifetimes than those who obtain bachelor’s degrees, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And when the economy sours, people without degrees are more likely to become unemployed, AP reported.

During the pandemic, Arkansas saw a decrease in the number of new high school graduates attending college from 49 percent to 42 percent. Kentucky also experienced a similar decline to 54 percent. In Indiana, the latest data showed a 12-point decrease from 2015 to 2020, prompting the state’s higher education leader to warn that “the future of our state is at risk”, AP reported.

Agencies contributed to this story.