RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
New data is showing that the pandemic is having a profound impact on college enrollment. Turns out a lot of students and their families didn't want to shell out big money for college tuition exclusively for online classes. But NPR's Elissa Nadworny says this downward trend was visible even before COVID-19 upended everything. Elissa joins us this morning. Hey, there.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: Give us a rundown of these new numbers, Elissa.
NADWORNY: Well, it's not good. Undergrad college enrollment fell 3.6% compared with last fall. That represents a drop of more than half a million undergrads. That's twice the rate of enrollment decline we saw in 2019. The data comes from the National Student Clearinghouse. Here's Doug Shapiro, who leads the research there.
DOUG SHAPIRO: To see this level of decline all at once is so sudden and so dramatic.
NADWORNY: Community colleges, which historically see enrollment go up in times of economic trouble, were the hardest hit and made up the majority of the decline. This fall, across programs and degrees, those institutions alone were missing more than half a million students.
SHAPIRO: Individuals whose lives are on hold - and you can almost think of this as an entire generation that will enter adulthood with lower education, lower skills, less employability, ultimately lower productivity when they enter the workforce.
NADWORNY: And community colleges also tend to serve more low-income students, students raising kids, people who are working. The only places where enrollment increased were graduate programs and for-profit colleges. Often, those have a track record of being online already and the advertising budget to prove it.
MARTIN: So Elissa, I mean, how much of this can be attributed to the fact that students - potential college students just didn't see it as being worth it to pay for tuition for college when it was going to be online?
NADWORNY: Yeah, so certainly the pandemic has a lot to do with it. But, you know, college enrollment has been on the downward decline for nearly a decade. And projections show that in a few years, the number of high school graduates will start to shrink. So the pool is going to get smaller.
MARTIN: I mean, that's going to be bad news for these institutions, no?
NADWORNY: Yep. That's right. Low enrollment means fewer tuition dollars, which means less revenue, aka cuts.
NADWORNY: All across the country, institutions have announced furloughs and layoffs. They've cut sports and majors, at some schools, even entire departments. Here's Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
DOMINIQUE BAKER: This is not good. We are in a very bad financial time for higher education. And the most unfortunate part is I don't see that we have sort of reached the bottom yet.
NADWORNY: She says the only way she can see a way out of this is money from the federal government. Congress is working out a deal right now that will include money for colleges. But the question is, will it be enough?
MARTIN: I mean, do we know any more about why, who these students are that aren't showing up to college, deciding not to go?
NADWORNY: Yeah. So one of the largest groups missing from college this fall was first-time students. I've been talking to many of those would-be students. And I want you to meet a recent high school grad from Stafford, Texas, named Brian Williams. Throughout high school, the plan was always for him to go right on to college, but the pandemic changed that.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: I'm terrible at online school.
NADWORNY: He says he was barely interested in logging on for his final weeks of high school. Being online for his first semester at Houston Community College felt unbearable.
WILLIAMS: Because I know, like, what works best for me, and, like, doing stuff on the computer doesn't really stimulate me in the same way an actual class would.
NADWORNY: Plus, there were the family's finances to consider.
WILLIAMS: We had no money for it, and I'm not trying to go into debt and pay that for the rest of, like, my life.
NADWORNY: So he postponed, deciding to get a job in fast food at Jimmy John's so he could start saving up. For students who graduated from high school in the class of 2020 like Williams, college going rates are down nearly 22% compared with last year. For graduates at high-poverty high schools, the numbers are even worse.
The data doesn't come as a surprise to Catalina Cifuentes, who works to promote college access for Riverside County, Calif., just east of Los Angeles. She thinks back to the spring when so many of her seniors were getting ready to graduate.
CATALINA CIFUENTES: We went to basic needs mode. We went into feeding them. We went into making sure they had a device, making sure they had pencils and your pens and your paper and your books. It was things like college and career readiness or talking about college or college applications - they took a backseat.
NADWORNY: The students in her county are mostly from low-income families, and many would be the first in their family to go to college.
CIFUENTES: We are potentially losing an entire generation of students that their lives will be completely different if we don't step in, especially the students that are institution dependent.
NADWORNY: There has been a lot of talk about people taking a year off or a gap year. Cifuentes says, whatever you call it, it's not good for her students.
CIFUENTES: The longer you're out of school, the less likely you are to return, especially for students that live in poverty, that live in lower-income communities. Gap years of, let me just work and make $15,000 for the year, and then I'm going to quit and go back - it doesn't happen.
NADWORNY: Riley Borup worries about not going back, too. He's in his late 20s. And when the pandemic hit, he was enrolled at a community college outside Seattle, studying engineering. Like Williams, he learned quickly that online school was not for him.
RILEY BORUP: We were dealing with this little, like, circuit board, and it was just something that it would have been so much easier to do in person - you know what I mean? - 'cause, you know, you're doing the Zoom thing. And it's like, man, I wish someone could just point this out to me, which, you know - which one I should be doing right now.
NADWORNY: So he withdrew. He got a job collecting garbage to pass the time and pay the rent. The pause in school is temporary, he says, but there are days he's afraid he won't ever get that degree.
BORUP: It's definitely, like, an internal battle where sometimes I'm like, I might just join the military, (laughter) you know what I mean? But then I'm like, no, you know, this is my goal. Now I'm going to stick with it.
NADWORNY: For Brian Williams, the first few weeks working at Jimmy John's in Texas were tough.
WILLIAMS: It felt low-key defeating. I was just like - I really like - I'm not doing college, and I'm getting paid only $24 a day.
NADWORNY: But then work started giving him more shifts and he mastered the art of making a sandwich in less than 30 seconds
WILLIAMS: Pull the bread off the rack, cut it in the middle. And then you scoop the mayo out the thing. You have to spread it, like, in one second. You get tomatoes. You put that on. You put the lettuce on. And then you pull the meats and you wrap it. And that's how you do it fast. I'm, like, reenacting the movements right now.
NADWORNY: Two weeks ago, he got promoted to manager, but he's not giving up on college.
WILLIAMS: I use this time to grow mentally and to grow financially.
MARTIN: Using his time to grow mentally and financially and making a lot of sandwiches - I mean, he sounds like at least he's got a good plan.
NADWORNY: Yep. He's going to go. That's what he says.
MARTIN: So Elissa, in terms of the current admission cycle, what are seniors in high school now facing?
NADWORNY: So at least with the class of 2020, college counselors and teachers were in person during the fall application period. But this year, many people are remote. You know, they're disconnected. And that makes it really hard to apply to college. National data so far isn't looking promising. As of December 4, the number of students who filled out the federal form to get student aid was down 14%. The drop's more dramatic among low-income students and nonwhite students. And some colleges are even pushing back their application deadlines.
MARTIN: Elissa Nadworny - she covers higher ed for NPR. Elissa, thank you.
NADWORNY: Thank you.
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