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College Enrollment Declines for Third Consecutive Year

College students study together.

"We’re seeing smaller declines, but when you’re in a deep hole, the fact that you’re only digging a tiny bit further is not really good news.”

For three consecutive years, college enrollment has decreased as a result of the pandemic.

A new study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center revealed that among undergraduates, enrollment has dropped 1.1 percent in the past year, with freshman enrollment down 1.5 percent. While it is a smaller percentage than that in 2021, which saw a decline of 3.1 percent, experts still say the numbers are alarming.

Executive director of the center Doug Shapiro told The Washington Post: “I certainly wouldn’t call this a recovery. We’re seeing smaller declines, but when you’re in a deep hole, the fact that you’re only digging a tiny bit further is not really good news.”

He noted that several students faced a disruption to the final years of their high school education, which could have prevented them from entering college. According to Shapiro, the numbers are nowhere near pre-pandemic rates.

“We don’t see a huge upsurge of first-year students, of freshmen, especially at the four-year institutions,” Shapiro said. “There’s not a lot of evidence in these numbers that they’re coming back now.”

The report found that private, for-profit colleges face the steepest decrease in enrollment down 2.5 percent this year from last. Public colleges saw a 1.6 percent decline in undergraduate enrollment, compared to 0.9 percent at nonprofit universities. Graduate enrollment overall dipped 1 percent, while community colleges had the smallest drop at 0.4 percent. By region, Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions had disproportionate decreases compared to other states.

Experts have already noted how the Covid-19 pandemic affected learning in elementary school students, with national decreases in reading and mathematics. Students suffering the most are those from low-income areas and communities with a predominantly-POC population, who are already disproportionately underrepresented in higher education.

However, according to data from the National College Attainment Network, 4.3 percent of high school graduates in the class of 2023 completed the FAFSA form, up 25 percent from the class of 2022. An uptick in FAFSSA applications may signal that enrollment for next year will increase.

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