College enrollment continues to drop during the pandemic The pandemic has seen far fewer students go to college — that trend continued this fall, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

College enrollment plummeted during the pandemic. This fall, it's even worse

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

College enrollment plummeted during the first year of the pandemic, and now preliminary data shows it is even worse this fall, which could have huge ramifications for the U.S. economy. Here's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: After the unprecedented declines in college going rates last year, experts were hoping this fall students who took a break or elected to put off college would show back up on campus. But that didn't happen. Instead, preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows college enrollment is on track to fall by another nearly 500,000 undergraduate students.

DOUG SHAPIRO: It's very frightening.

NADWORNY: Doug Shapiro runs the nonprofit research center.

SHAPIRO: If that rate of decline holds up, it would be the largest two-year enrollment decrease in at least the last 50 years.

NADWORNY: Community colleges, which often serve more low-income students and students of color, have consistently been the hardest hit. That remained true this fall. Nationally, the freshman class at community colleges is now about 21% below the numbers for the freshman class just two years ago. The pandemic bucked the trend of previous recessions. When the economy is doing poorly, enrollment typically goes up. Students go to college when they can't find work. But as the job market improves, students leave college and join the workforce.

SHAPIRO: But this time, the entire crest of that wave just didn't happen. It got swallowed up by the pandemic.

NADWORNY: No bump from the recession, only a drop now as the economy recovers and students who would likely be enrolled in community college turn to low-wage jobs. The big question for the future, says Shapiro, is will businesses be able to find skilled workers to hire? And what's to happen to all the people who decided to work instead of go to college?

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

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