All throughout high school, Brian Williams planned to go to college. But as the pandemic eroded the final moments of his senior year, the Stafford, Texas, student began to second-guess that plan.
"I'm terrible at online school," Williams 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.
"I know what works best for me, and doing stuff on the computer doesn't really stimulate me in the same way an actual class would."
Paying for college was always going to be hard, but it was even harder to justify the expense during a pandemic. "We had no money for it," he says, "and I'm not trying to go into debt and pay that for the rest of my life."
He wondered if college in 2020 was "really worth it." So he postponed and instead got a job at Jimmy John's so he could start saving up.
Williams is one of hundreds of thousands of students who decided to put off higher education this year. According to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment this fall declined by 3.6% from the fall of 2019. That's more than 560,000 students and twice the rate of enrollment decline seen last year. Most of that decline occurred at community colleges, where enrollment fell by more than 10%, or more than 544,000 students.
"To see this level of decline all at once is so sudden and so dramatic," says Doug Shapiro, who leads the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse. "It's completely unprecedented."
Students attending college for the first time represent one of the largest groups missing from college classes this fall, Shapiro says. For students who graduated from high school in the class of 2020, the number of graduates enrolling in college is down by 21.7% compared with last year, based on preliminary data. For graduates at high-poverty high schools there was a 32.6% decline in attending college, compared with a 16.4% decline for graduates of low-poverty schools.
"That's a lot of individuals whose lives are on hold, whose career and educational aspirations are suspended," says Shapiro. "You can almost think of this as an entire generation that will enter adulthood with lower education, lower skills, less employability, ultimately lower productivity."
Shapiro says the pandemic is largely to blame for this year's drastic declines, but it's also true that attending college has been on a decade-long downward trend. College enrollment nationwide fell 11% between 2011 and 2019, the Clearinghouse found.
Fewer people going to college and getting a degree spells trouble for individual families, for communities and for the U.S. economy as a whole.
"There is a much larger implication here for the country," says Angel Pérez, who oversees the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "The fact is if we lose an entire generation of young people in the pipeline to college, that will have an impact on our tax base. It will have an impact on an educated citizenry."
"A very bad financial time"
For colleges, lower enrollment means fewer tuition dollars, which translates to a drop in revenue at a time when college budgets were already strained because of the pandemic.
Now, colleges have begun to tighten their belts. In October, Ithaca College, a private college in upstate New York, announced plans to cut about 130 faculty positions to deal with falling enrollment. That's in addition to pandemic-related cuts the college made in April. Across the country institutions have announced furloughs and layoffs; they've canceled sports, majors and even entire departments. More than 50 universities have suspended admissions to their Ph.D. programs, The Chronicle of Higher Education found.
"To be blunt, 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," says Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"What determines how bad this eventually gets are things like what is the federal government doing? How much funding does the federal government give out to states? How much funding does the federal government give out to individual higher education institutions to help them?" she says. "If we're not seeing a significant investment in higher education, this is going to become much more widespread."
Without federal or state money, colleges may look to increase tuition to offset budget shortfalls. In Florida, there's talk of raising tuition at public institutions for the first time in several years.
Even after the pandemic is over, colleges won't be out of the woods. They're still facing a demographic cliff. The number of U.S. high school graduates is expected to peak by 2025, buoyed by nonwhite students, then decline through the end of 2037, according to projections by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. In other words, the pool of eligible college students is shrinking.
"Historically, when colleges and universities had financial challenges, the answer was always to go to the chief enrollment officer and say, 'Bring us more students," Pérez explains. "That option no longer exists."
There are two bright spots in the new fall enrollment numbers: There were increases in enrollment at graduate schools — mainly in short-term certificate and master's programs, Shapiro says — and enrollment went up at for-profit colleges, many of which had previous experience with online learning, so were well-positioned to take on students during the pandemic.
For-profit colleges have lower graduation rates compared to public colleges, federal data shows. They tend to enroll the same types of students that go to community colleges, though tuition is often much higher. For-profits also spend more on advertising, a factor that may have enticed students uncertain about what college would look like at brick-and-mortar institutions. Baker worries that for-profits may have scooped up students who would otherwise have enrolled in community colleges.
"Community colleges do not have the money to market themselves in the way that a for-profit institution does," she says. "They're just less nimble."
A shock for community colleges
At community colleges, the financial situation is also less fixable. Budgets are already tight, and raising tuition goes against the core of their mission: to be an affordable, open-access institution.
"Community colleges are an area of higher education that our country, and often states, have systematically underfunded," Baker says. At the same time, she explains, "they do the lion's share of educating students in the United States."
Low-income students are more likely to attend community colleges, as are nonwhite students. Baker says that when community colleges are hurting, it also hurts the students they serve.
"The financial situation, the enrollment situation, this is not an issue that is hitting all students in the same way," Baker says.
Historically, students flock to community colleges when unemployment is high. Bill Pink, the president of Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan, says that's what everyone expected to happen this year: " 'Community colleges, you guys are going to clean up. You guys are not going to have room for all these people!' That is so wrong."
In late September, Pink says, fall enrollment at GRCC was down about 9% from the year before. Pink sees a few factors influencing this drop. The biggest is finances — he says students and their families are squeezed right now, despite the low cost of tuition at most community colleges.
The other thing holding people back is the idea of learning online.
"Students say: 'You know what? Instead of trying to navigate online learning that I'm not really accustomed to, I'm just going to sit it out. I'm just going to work. I'm going to take a year or a semester off,'" Pink explains.
That's what Riley Borup decided this spring. He's in his late 20s, and after working as a plumber for his father for several years, he decided to enroll at Everett Community College, 40 minutes north of Seattle, to study engineering. In March, he was learning about circuit boards and enjoying it, but when classes shifted to virtual, it didn't take long for Borup to decide online learning wasn't for him.
"The circuit board, it would have been so much easier to do in person," he says. "You do the Zoom thing and it's like, man, I want the professor to just point this out to me in person."
With campus closed, his college routine was thrown into chaos.
"I looked at college like a full-time job," Borup says. "I'd try to stay on campus for at least 40 hours a week." At home, he had trouble focusing. There were dogs and roommates to distract him. So Borup decided to withdraw from school and pick up a job as a part-time garbage collector to pass the time and pay the rent.
He says there are some days when he loses faith that he'll ever go back to school. "It's definitely like an internal battle where sometimes I'm like, 'I might just join the military,' " he says. "But then I'm like, 'This is my goal. I'm going to stick with it.' And I've told a lot of people, family, friends, so it's kind of for them."
Plus, he adds, "I wouldn't respect myself if I just dropped off. I've already put over a year into it, so it's like I'm not going to waste the last year."
Borup says he is "very aware" of the delay this break is causing — instead of getting a degree in 2023, graduation in 2024 is more likely. The plan for now is to take one online class in the spring to see if he can ease back in.
Losing a generation
For Catalina Cifuentes, who works to promote college access in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, the number of students who decided not to go to college worries her. "It really does feel like we're losing a generation," she says.
The students in her county are mostly from low-income families, and many would be the first in their family to go to college. "They don't know what they don't know," she says. "They don't know that research shows the longer you're out of school, the less likely you are to return."
Some of her students are calling their break a "gap year," but Cifuentes says it's not the kind of gap year wealthier students might experience. "They're working, and their families are getting used to that extra paycheck. That's going to be really hard to give up for school."
When she thinks back to the spring, Cifuentes isn't surprised so many 2020 high school graduates didn't enroll in college this fall.
"We were in survival mode. We went into making sure students had food, housing, basic needs," she says. "Things like college and college applications, they take a backseat."
And she's seeing the same pattern play out for this year's high school seniors, the class of 2021. "We're trying to get them to come to class, to log on. If it was bad in the spring and summer for college conversations, this is worse. We were in the back seat before. Now we're outside of the car."
There is data to support Cifuentes' concerns about this year's seniors. As of Dec. 4, the number of students who had filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, was down 14% compared with the same time last year. The drop is even more dramatic among low-income and nonwhite students. Colleges, including the 23 campuses in the California State system, pushed back their application deadlines to allow more students to apply.
For her part, Cifuentes and her staff have been taking to the phones, calling students to help them with their college applications. And she's not giving up on the class of 2020 either. "I'm really hopeful that students will go back," she says. "It's not too late."
Brian Williams, who decided to forgo college in Houston and is now working at Jimmy John's, says he's "working long hours and saving a lot of money." He's recently been promoted to manager, and though he's enjoying the bigger paycheck and more responsibility, he hasn't given up on the idea of getting his degree.
"So far this year I've really grown mentally and financially," he says, "and when the time comes for college, I'll be ready."
He says he plans to enroll at his local community college next fall.
Education Desk intern Marco Treviño contributed to this report.