A MARTINEZ, HOST:
New numbers out today show that there are more than a million fewer undergraduates in college, due to pandemic disruptions. Last fall continued the historic enrollment drops that began in the fall of 2020. It's the largest two-year decrease in more than 50 years. NPR's higher education correspondent Elissa Nadworny joins us now. Elissa, so tell us about the dramatic declines.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Well, overall undergrad enrollment is down 6.6% since the fall of 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Throughout the pandemic, community colleges have been the hardest hit. They serve more low-income students, students of color. But this past fall saw four-year colleges made up about half of the decline, so it's pretty widespread. And, you know, there was a lot of talk about a pandemic gap year - students just taking some time off, coming back. That did not happen. Of the 2020 high school graduates who didn't go to college right after graduation, just 2% ended up enrolling last fall.
MARTINEZ: Only 2%. So where are the rest of the 98%?
NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, many are working. I mean, today's wages at the bottom of the economy have gone way up. For example, government data show non-manager jobs in hospitality paid 15% more than a year ago, and that's pretty tempting for young people. I've been keeping in touch with a young guy named Brian Williams. He graduated from high school in 2020. He put off college last year, figured he'd save some money working at Jimmy John's. But this fall, instead of enrolling in college like he had planned, he found a job at an Amazon warehouse that pays a few dollars more per hour. And that's been difficult to give up.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: It's so hard because I'm just like, wow, if I go to school, I'm going to take time off, and I'm not going to have any money for, like, the things I need.
NADWORNY: His plan is still to enroll at the community college. He says he doesn't want to be working at Amazon forever.
WILLIAMS: Even though this job does give me the money I need, it's not, like - it's not enough for what I want, for what I see myself or what I want for myself, so I have to put myself through college.
MARTINEZ: OK, so what does the research say about that, then, because how much does some college really impact someone's earnings?
NADWORNY: Well, having a degree or even some college means that you're going to make a lot more money over your lifetime. Here's how Tolani Britton, who studies higher education at the University of California, Berkeley, explains it.
TOLANI BRITTON: It may be great that people are finding jobs in the short term, but I think the realities of an 18-year-old who is living at home and helping his family and the wage that he's earning - if he's still earning that wage 15 years from now and has a family of his own to support, what are the implications, in terms of, like, sort of socioeconomic mobility for that individual, for their children?
NADWORNY: And the reality is it's hard to make decisions about your future needs when you're just trying to meet the needs of today. My colleague, NPR's Michelle Aslam, spoke to some would-be students who are in the middle of that right now.
MARTINEZ: Let's hear Michelle's reporting.
MICHELLE ASLAM, BYLINE: Grace Nichole Hawkins left college in fall 2020 because of the pandemic.
GRACE NICHOLE HAWKINS: I started falling behind in my online classes, and then I just didn't want to do, like, college anymore, so I decided I was going to drop out.
ASLAM: When she started at the University of West Florida, she was convinced that law school was next. But she says the pandemic pushed her to make other plans, reevaluating if she really wants or even needs a bachelor's degree. Now, at 21 years old, she says...
HAWKINS: I'm saving up to go to welding school in the fall.
ASLAM: She says that's partly to prove that women can succeed at blue-collar jobs, too. But it's also something that she thinks she'll be good at.
HAWKINS: Ever since I was little, I loved to build things and create things and design things, so I thought that welding would be a really good fit for me.
ASLAM: The pandemic also changed 19-year-old Jedidiah Brady's (ph) college plans. Classes went online just as he was finishing high school. When he started college at Durham Technical Community College in fall 2020, it was more of the same.
JEDIDIAH BRADY: Kind of started losing hope from there, so I thought if I stop wasting my money on something and if I just backed up, I could really rethink.
ASLAM: So he left school. Now he works as an installer, setting up furniture in office buildings. He says he's making a decent amount of money, but he knows he'll need more, and more education could help him get there.
BRADY: And then with that knowledge, I can find a better job.
ASLAM: And how much of a priority do you think wages are for your future plans?
BRADY: I think it's a lot 'cause right now I'm still at home, and I'm trying to move out. But with the job right now, it's possible, but it's going to be really tight.
ASLAM: He's thinking about studying to become an electrician.
BRADY: I'm just trying to figure out more ways that I can, in the future, continue to grow in my career and, you know, support a family and have my own house and different things like that.
ASLAM: Some students are closer to restarting their college journey than others. Twenty-four-year old Jasmine Tejeda (ph) has spent the past 19 months laying the groundwork for her return.
JASMINE TEJEDA: All right. I'm going to go back to school. Like, let's finish this.
ASLAM: When the pandemic hit, she was just a year away from finishing her bachelor's degree in psychology at Cal State Stanislaus. And then she lost her job working as a behavioral therapist for children with autism. Tuition bills started to pile up.
TEJEDA: I needed, like, pause. I need to pause my whole life for a moment and figure out everything
ASLAM: Dropping out meant she could spend time working, first as a receptionist and eventually with kids again, saving up some money until she could feel a sense of stability. In June, she finally felt ready to go back.
TEJEDA: I reapplied. I started talking to my counselors, financial advisers and things like that.
ASLAM: She still hasn't saved up as much as she wanted, but she's enrolled to start classes this year.
TEJEDA: I'm so close. I'm almost done, and the more I keep planning it out and looking at my classes and things like that, I'm like, I can do it. I know I can do it.
MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Michelle Aslam reporting. NPR's higher education correspondent Elissa Nadworny remains on the line. Elissa, what about the students who wind up not going back to college, or maybe don't even go in the first place? I mean, what does that mean for the U.S. economy?
NADWORNY: Well, big picture, more and more jobs in the U.S. require some post-secondary training, so when fewer people go to college, they're not getting the skills and credentials they'll need for those higher-paying jobs, and that's what reverberates throughout the national economy.
MARTINEZ: And one more thing really quick - how does omicron play into all this?
NADWORNY: Well, it's certainly not helping. I mean, community colleges, especially, were hoping to offer even more classes in person as a way to entice students back. But omicron is disrupting all of that, and it's happening at a really bad time because spring semester is about to start.
MARTINEZ: I was a community college kid, so that hurts to hear. Yeah. NPR's Elissa Nadworny, thanks a lot.
NADWORNY: You bet.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW CENTURY CLASSICS' "THE CHILDREN OF AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE")
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