During the first years of the Great Recession, college enrollment jumped by 16% between fall 2007 and fall 2010. It's been the opposite during the pandemic, with colleges nationwide losing more than 465,000 students this year over last.
This is a missed opportunity for students who may shortsightedly see higher education as a money pit rather than a quality-of-life lift.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported last week that undergraduate enrollment across two- and four-year state, private and for-profit colleges and universities in the fall of 2021 dropped by 3.1% compared with a year earlier. And this slide in enrollment is expected to contribute to a 6.6% decrease in undergraduate enrollment – or about 1 million people – since 2019.
The national dilemma is being played out locally, based on numbers reported last fall by The Journal Gazette's Ashley Sloboda. Other than the flagship campuses for Indiana and Purdue universities and some Ivy Tech Community College sites, state schools saw a 2.6% drop in degree-seeking students, bringing the five-year loss to 10.4%, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.
Regional campuses for the state's flagship universities were down 8.4% from the year prior, much higher than the national average of 3.4%. Purdue Fort Wayne had a smaller decline at 7%.
While community colleges nationally saw smaller enrollment drops, off by 3.4% over the previous year, Ivy Tech faced a systemwide decline of 6.7%. The Fort Wayne campus was hit particularly hard with an 8% decrease.
There are a few reasons cited as to why the Great Recession led to a surge in enrollment while the pandemic did not. Increased enrollment during the Great Recession, particularly with community colleges, was driven by adults retraining. Increasing the amount of Pell Grants as well as the number of students also encouraged Americans to go back to school, according to the education policy site, the Hechinger Report.
This follows patterns from other recessions, say writers in the journal for the National Bureau of Economic Research, that found a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate is associated with a 2% increase in college enrollment.
The economic recession caused by COVID-19 began in the late winter of 2020 with a 20% to 30% crash of stock indices. Stay-at-home orders iced the economy, and more than 58 million unemployment claims were filed between March and August.
The difference between the two events, beyond one being continually menaced by a virus, is the speed of the recovery, massive stimulus packages and a jump in wages, the latter facing pressure from inflation.
“The longer this continues, the more it starts to build its own momentum as a cultural shift and not just a short-term effect of the pandemic disruptions,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, told the Washington Post. “Students are questioning the value of college. They may be looking at friends who graduated last year or the year before who didn't go, and they seem to be doing fine. They're working; their wages are up.”
Young people from the lower end of the economic scale are opting out at the highest rate. There may be lucrative opportunities in the short term, but so many metrics confirm the value of post-secondary education in a tech-based economy as the best way to provide economic mobility.
In a Journal Gazette op-ed last fall, Teresa Lubbers, then the Indiana commissioner for higher education, wrote that Hoosiers suffer from an “ongoing attitude that a college degree doesn't hold value.”
Forget the generational differences. Young adults tend to live for the moment. It's incumbent upon their elders to remind them that going to school and work is not only doable, it is paramount.
The downstream effect is this: Indiana's leaders can cut taxes and create incentives for businesses, but we can't court businesses with high-paying jobs if we don't have an educated workforce. We need to redefine how we see college and continuing education as an opportunity rather than a burden.