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'Depressing' college enrollment numbers show pandemic damage is 'far from over'

·4 min read

The coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage college enrollments, with new data revealing declines compounding from last year to this fall.

According to early data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment continued to decline by 3.2% after dropping last year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Enrollment at community colleges dropped by 5.6% and at public four-year colleges by 2.3%. 

"These data are depressing, but they also show that the effects of the pandemic on higher education are far from over," Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee, told Yahoo Finance.

A woman and a child away from the main crowd watch closing ceremonies on a screen during a socially distanced graduation ceremony held outdoors because of the Covid-19 pandemic at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia on May 13, 2021. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman and a child watch closing ceremonies on a screen during a socially distanced graduation ceremony at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia on May 13, 2021. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The new data represents about half of the 3,600 post-secondary institutions the center collects data on and 8.4 million students as of Sept. 23. Combined with last fall's declines in enrollment, the number of undergraduate students has now fallen by a total of 6.5% since 2019.

“Far from filling the hole of last year’s enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a statement. “A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to see significant nationwide declines in undergraduate students, and community colleges remain the most adversely affected sector, experiencing a 14.1% total enrollment decline since fall 2019."

Enrollments determine many schools' financial future

Census data from earlier this month revealed how the coronavirus pandemic hit the education sector exceptionally hard, and college enrollments plunged in 2020 to the lowest level since 2007.

"These enrollment declines could be due to potential students choosing employment in a tight labor market over going to college or difficulties finding childcare during a pandemic," Kelchen said.

In other cases, he added, "some people may not be happy with the mode of instruction — either in-person or online — and are waiting out the pandemic."

Enrollments are key to schools' livelihoods as institutions. 

"This continued decline in enrollment could affect how much funding public colleges get from their states, since enrollment is a key driver of appropriations," Kelchen stressed.

The darker the orange, the sharper the decline in enrollment. (Map: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)
The darker the orange, the sharper the decline in enrollment. (Map: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)

Jessica Wood, credit analyst at S&P Global Ratings, explained that experts "talk a lot about net tuition revenue," which refers to colleges' gross revenues (which is enrollment times sticker price) minus institutional financial aid.

"With tuition's discount rates [and] financial aid rising and enrollments decreasing, net tuition revenues have been challenged at many schools for a while now," Wood told Yahoo Finance. "Of course, this is not affecting all schools — but for those with consistent declining [net tuition revenue], this creates some real pressure on total revenues."

Among undergrad institutions, public two-year colleges suffered a 5.6% decline, public four-year colleges a 2.3% decline, and private four-year colleges a 12.7% decline. Certain schools managed better: Undergrad enrollment at private nonprofit four-year colleges only saw modest declines of only 0.7%, and highly selective schools saw enrollments in fact grow by 4.3%, to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center
National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Graduate student enrollment, meanwhile, grew by 2.1% above last year's level and has seen a total increase of 5.3% over the last two years. Online schools saw a decline in undergrad enrollment by 5.4% and graduate enrollment by 13.6%.

There were gender disparities: Male enrollment declines came in at 6% while female enrollment dropped by 1.8%.

"Cumulatively, male enrollment decline during the pandemic is now -9.3%, four percentage points steeper than the female decline of -5.3%, over the two years from 2019 to 2021," the report noted.

Overall, while the declines reveal a sobering picture for higher ed amid surging endowments at certain schools, Kelchen said he's only expecting a small number of closures in the coming months.

"I think we will see the rate of mergers and closures increase somewhat, especially as federal support funds run out," he said. "But it won't be a mass wave of closures as colleges do everything they can to survive."

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Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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