As Higher-Ed Enrollment Drops, Experts Weigh Options
Wednesday, April 6, 2022
As Virginia and the rest of the nation track a years-long decline in college enrollment, leaders in higher education are weighing the best ways to keep folks enrolled.
The Virginia-based National Student Clearinghouse revealed that college enrollment across the country dropped nearly 3% last fall, capping an overall two-year decline of more than 930,000 students nationwide.
In a virtual higher-ed conference this week, Doug Shapiro, vice president and executive director of the clearinghouse, noted that community colleges were most affected by enrollment declines in the pandemic's first year.
"Community colleges essentially took 85% of the total losses in year one," he said, "but it was nearly evenly split in year two, with the four-year institutions responsible for just under half of the total student decline, about 47%."
According to Virginia's State Council of Higher Education, undergraduate enrollment in public four-year schools across the state stood at nearly 172,000 as of the fall 2021 semester, the lowest fall head count since 2016. Advocates in the higher-education field argue that more financial support for students from state and federal governments could stabilize and increase enrollment.
A new report by the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative found that before vaccines became widely available, roughly 11% of Latino students planned to cancel their college plans for fall 2021, nearly double the national average. While enrollment among all student racial demographics has declined sharply since 2019, Shapiro noted that students of color were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
"So, Hispanic freshmen were actually increasing in 2019 before the pandemic," he said, "whereas white freshmen were already declining before the pandemic, and at the fastest rate."
Kim Cook, chief executive of the National College Attainment Network, said the federal government could help potential students by doubling the Pell Grant, available to students with financial needs. Cook said that would make more than 80% of two- and four-year public higher ed affordable for the average Pell Grant recipient.
"Today, even with a celebrated and historic $400 increase recently signed into law," she said, "it is worth only 30% of the average cost of attendance."
At the state level, Cook said lawmakers can spur college enrollment by compelling students to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as a pre-requisite for graduation.
Support for this reporting was provided by Lumina Foundation.
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