AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Today we have new numbers on how many students went to college this school year, a year that's been full of uncertainty and turbulence on campuses. Enrollments have dropped off, showing that the pandemic continues to have a profound impact on colleges. And community colleges were the hardest hit. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us now. Hey, Elissa.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hello.
CHANG: So just give us a rundown of the numbers here.
NADWORNY: Well, undergraduate enrollment is down nearly 5% from a year ago. That's according to the National Student Clearinghouse, the organization that tracks the data. That translates to about three-quarters of a million fewer students. So that's a lot of people not in college.
NADWORNY: Now, overall, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs has actually been trending downward since 2012, but this spring's decline is very steep. So it's seven times worse than the drop seen just a year ago, from spring 2019 to spring 2020. I talked with Doug Shapiro, who leads research at the Clearinghouse.
DOUG SHAPIRO: Despite all kinds of hopes and expectations that things would get better, they've only gotten worse in the spring. And it really shows that there will be no easy fixes or quick bounce backs.
NADWORNY: So undergraduate enrollment is driving the decline. It's happening across every sector, including for-profit colleges.
CHANG: And what about this big drop in community colleges? What's the story there?
NADWORNY: Well, community colleges often serve more low-income students and students of color. On average, they saw an enrollment drop of 9.5%. That translates to nearly half-a-million students. Schools across the country are feeling it. I talked with Heidi Aldes. She's the dean of enrollment management at Minneapolis College, a community college in Minnesota.
HEIDI ALDES: The enrollment landscape has completely shifted and changed as though an earthquake has hit the ground.
NADWORNY: This spring, her school saw a drop of 11% in enrollment.
CHANG: Wow. So, Elissa, I mean, what specifically is it about this pandemic that explains why college enrollment would drop?
NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, Aldes attributes the enrollment decline to a number of factors, including classes being online, a kind of pandemic paralysis - people were stuck - and financial situations that families found themselves in. College just took a backseat.
ALDES: Many folks felt like they couldn't afford to not work and so couldn't afford to go to school. And so much uncertainty and unpredictability - you know, just human nature is to freeze and wait.
NADWORNY: In terms of the future, the data shows that traditional-aged students, those 18 to 24, made up the largest portion of students missing. So that's the class of 2020. And the biggest question now is, will those students ultimately go to college, despite research that shows the farther you are from your high school graduation, the harder it is to enroll?
CHANG: Right. So what do you see as the ramifications of all this down the road, all these people not enrolling in college?
NADWORNY: Well, the value of the college degree became especially clear during the pandemic. Americans with degrees were more likely to stay employed. If they did lose a job, they were more likely to get hired again. Unemployment rates were far higher for those with just a high school diploma. It's also worth mentioning the only numbers that went up were at graduate school, which Doug Shapiro from the Clearinghouse says paints a pretty grim picture of a widening gap in America.
SHAPIRO: It's kind of the educational equivalent of the rich getting richer. You know, those gaps in education and skills will be baked in for years to come.
NADWORNY: So these declines in enrollment, they aren't just felt by students and families in terms of wages and income; they're also going to be felt throughout the entire economy in the future.
CHANG: That is Elissa Nadworny from NPR's education team. Thank you, Elissa.
NADWORNY: You bet.
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