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College Enrollments Drastically Low: Is the End of University in Sight?

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Student enrollment in universities, as well as community colleges, is taking a deep dive. In the past year, attendance was down by 250,000 compared to 2018.


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The times they are a-changing. And nowhere more than higher education. A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that student enrollment in universities, as well as community colleges, is taking a steep dive. Last fall the numbers were down by 250,000 compared to 2018. While the disparity was especially harsh this past year, higher education enrollment has been steadily slipping for years, with an overall drop of 11 percent over the past eight years.

The drop was felt across the board by institutions, with no preference for community colleges or public and private universities. And while the midwest and northwest were hit a bit harder than the rest of the nation, the overall picture is clear. 

All you have to do is a simple Google search to come across a myriad of news stories and articles discussing the conundrum higher education holds for this generation of high school grads. What used to seem like an assumed rite of passage, now looks more like an unachievable goal for many.

A major factor behind the statistics is financial. The cost of higher education has been rising for years. It wasn’t always this way, but in the last 5 years alone, fees and tuitions have skyrocketed. In some states, the increase has been upwards of 77%.

In the face of ballooning costs, Gen Z and beyond are left to dream of a “once upon a time” world where college was affordable. 

Outstanding student loan debt has reached a crisis point for thousands in the U.S. In 2019, it soared to an all-time high of $1.41 trillion. As of last year, the average student loan balance per borrower topped out at a staggering $35,359. Emerging graduates bogged down with that kind of debt are finding their life trajectories impacted for years post-school. Multiple surveys are showing the long term impact of student loans. Overall, it is delaying financial security and life milestones such as purchasing a home, planning for retirement and even marriage.

According to a report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, in 2019, there were only six public flagship universities with a cost that was affordable for students coming from low-income families. And still, several of these schools require an investment of $80,000 or more to complete a four-year degree. 

In the wake of the shifting attainability of a degree, many are turning to alternative avenues to find a career. Options apart from a four-year university include apprenticeships, job-based learning, trade schools, online college and coding boot camps. Aside from the financial appeal these different avenues offer, there is a larger problem of disillusionment with traditional higher ed. Studies are showing a lessening belief in the system as a whole. According to TD Ameritrade, a whopping half of university-educated Americans saw their degree as irrelevant to their work. 

It’s no wonder the numbers are down as high schoolers see their friends, relatives and peers struggling to shoulder the financial ramifications of college. Their attention is increasingly turning to alternative routes for building their careers and future.