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Why is college enrollment declining? And what role did the pandemic play?

MINNEAPOLIS – When fall semester kicked off at the University of Minnesota in August, the school touted its incoming freshman class as one of its largest in history. 

It’s a feat that carries more weight when measured against national trends. More than 17 million students attended either a two- or four-year school in spring 2020. It dropped to about 16.5 million a year later. 

By this spring, enrollment was below 16 million.

Becky Wallelrick is the career and college counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School in Bloomington.

“Money is definitely a big factor. For the majority of kids that I ask, they think they can’t afford it,” Wallelrick said. “The time that we all spent together at home during the COVID pandemic is something that changed the way kids think about college.”

Nichole Torpey-Saboe, managing director of research for the STRADA Education Network, says COVID did play a high role in the decline in enrollment. She says students who struggled with e-learning in high school might have wanted to delay dealing with the same in college.

“It impacted a lot of people’s finances. So, you know, if your parents lost their jobs, got furloughed and whatnot, then that had to delay and cancel a lot of people’s plans,”  Torpey-Saboe said.

STRADA’s research shows the cost of college – or its perception – turned people away. Stress and anxiety, and other options – like a strong labor market – furthered enrollment’s decline. All of which combine to her next point.



“The thing in our research that’s just really striking … is the decline in confidence in the value of higher education,” Torpey-Saboe said.

Wallerick encourages options beyond college if it best suits a student’s needs.

“I have some stories of students who started their own business during COVID,” Wallerick said. 

But she doesn’t want them to feel it’s unattainable.

“We do a lot to try to help them understand how they can afford it,” she said. “We had a college here today who has one of the best merit aid programs in country.”

“I think it’s just a matter of how you actually make it seem accessible and give people the access to those options to pay for school,” Torpey-Saboe said.

If you know anyone thinking about applying, the 2022 Minnesota National College Fair starts at the Minneapolis Convention Center tomorrow.  Hundreds of schools from across the country will have reps on hand ready to answer any questions.  The free event runs until Thursday.

Source: CBS Minnesota

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