Why is college enrollment dropping?

Penn State University Old Main
Posted at 2:10 PM, Dec 08, 2022

First-generation college student Kyla Aguire wasn’t sure she’d return to the Metropolitan State University of Denver for her senior year when the pandemic hit in 2020. 

"My husband and I honestly, we were thinking about what I was going to do this next year because we honestly can’t afford it," said Aguire. 

Like Aguire, more students are choosing to leave higher education or not pursue a degree. A 2022 Gallup poll found about a third of enrolled students pursuing a bachelor’s degree considered withdrawing for a semester or more. 

The top reasons — are emotional stress, COVID-19, and cost. And some students are leaving college altogether, causing a drop in enrollment. Findings show there are around 9% fewer students on college campuses today compared to two years ago. 

That’s a loss of nearly 1.4 million students.  

Beth Akers focuses on the economics of higher education as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She says the decline reflects students questioning whether a degree is worth the cost.  

"College is the safest path to middle and upper-middle-class income in this country. That’s true, but there is an evolution happening that I think young people are onto," said Akers. 

According to the research organization Education Data Initiative, the cost of college has more than doubled in the 21st century. Each year, the cost has gone up by about 7% on average. And more Americans are turning to loans to foot the bill, with the average student loan debt of nearly $38,000. 

The combination of cost and option-conscious prospective students is forcing institutions to reexamine their approach. 

"We’ve had dips before, we manage it to the best of our ability. But at some point, you do have to step in and make some drastic decisions," said Dr. Flora Tydings, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Another variable is the competitive labor market which is enticing some prospective students to enter the workforce and bypass college. 

"When a high school student can graduate today and walk out of high school and potentially earn $20 an hour or more and then wonder why they have to pay us $10,000 a year to get an education, that’s a reasonable question that we ought to be ready to answer," said Sonny Perdu, chancellor at University System of Georgia.

And schools with no answers have to close their doors. A Wall Street Journal report found the number of institutions closing in the last decade has quadrupled compared to the previous 10 years.  

Some education advocates say there’s also less school funding, making for fewer financial aid opportunities. The National Education Association says 32 states spent less on public colleges and universities in 2020 than 2008. But some say college is still worth the investment.  

"Return on investment is really, really important. A lot of our students earn degrees in engineering, in computer science and in business, where the starting salaries are quite high. Our average starting salary for students who graduate is $75,000 a year," said Steve Mclaughlin, provost and executive VP for academic affairs at Georgia Tech.   

The range of options is opening possibilities for a new generation to learn valuable life lessons outside of the classroom.