National surveys raise questions about college and university enrollment

Courtesy of

In recent years, fewer people have been attending college.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, pandemic-era college enrollment declined by 1 million from fall 2019 to fall 2022 – about 7.6%. The report also stated that the number of students transferring from community college to a four-year institution is declining. In this time frame, the number of students transferring dropped by almost 8%.  

Many believe that the decline began after the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, but according to data done by the same organization in 2020, this issue was already happening before the pandemic, demonstrating that COVID-19 only exacerbated things. Their data shows that between 2016 and 2020, the number of college students continued to decline. It slowed down a bit at some point, but for the 2019 spring semester, the total number of college students decreased by about 83,803, or 0.5 percent. The public sector’s enrollment, including two- and four-year colleges, dropped by 1.3 percent.

There are many factors why this might be happening, but the one considered widely by education and research leaders is that of college costs. 

Today, college tuition prices are significantly higher than 20 years ago. For instance, according to data from U.S. News, the average cost of tuition and fees at national universities focusing on research has increased 134% since 2002.

Experts discovered that most tuition increases in public and private four-year universities happened during the Great Recession and were linked to the economic downturn. The coronavirus pandemic could also impact the cost of education in the future due to high inflation and other factors.

Classes might be another reason many are no longer attracted to higher education. 

Community college and university students often take many courses to meet the requirements for their major or graduation. Various academic departments set these requirements, and can vary depending on the student’s chosen field. It’s also natural for students to change their majors once they’ve found their passion.

“I am a biology major, and to graduate, I had to take many unnecessary classes, which made me extremely anxious and wasted a lot of time,” Contra Costa College student Maria Parra said.  “There were a few moments when I felt like dropping out and beginning working because I was exhausted. My passion for biology kept me going; otherwise, I would have dropped out long ago. I believe the college system needs to be improved and changed so people stay motivated and enroll in college.” 

Women are now enrolling and graduating from college more than men. But many women have reported that mental health and well-being are reasons some women don’t register and drop college. 

A Best Colleges survey focusing on students’ mental health conducted between April and May 2022 found 1000 participants between the ages 18 and 26 that were enrolled in Associates and Bachelors degrees programs stated students’ main covers were the prevalence of COVID-19, the school’s support services, and the wellness of students.

For mental health and wellness, the survey reported the following: 

  • About half of college students think their mental health is poor or fair, while only a quarter feel that their well-being is excellent or good. 
  • Most college students regularly experience various mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, and self-doubt. 
  • Almost half of students (41%) stated that their mental health worsened during college, with LGBTQ+ individuals more likely to experience this.
  • Among the most significant barriers college students faced when seeking mental health assistance were their lack of insurance coverage and perceived expenses.

For mental health support, it was reported:

  • An overwhelming majority of college students (81%) know that their school has programs and services for mental health. 
  • Only 20% of the individuals who regarded their mental health as poor or fair contacted their schools for help. 
  • About 42% of students would like their schools to establish mental health days in their academic calendar. They also want to see more programming and activities that support their mental health and more life skills classes.

And last but not least for COVID-19, it was reported that: 

  • More than 60% of students in college have had their education disrupted or impacted by the pandemic. Many of these students experienced the effects of campus closures. 
  • Academic pressure, current events, and financial difficulties are the most common factors negatively affecting a college student’s mental health.
  • In the previous year, around 1 in 5 college students experienced the loss of a loved one.

School flexibility might be a great idea if the college system wants to increase enrollment. Many people enrolling in college are first-time or returning students with kids and full-time jobs. College students are no longer the typical 18- to 22-year-old students.

The University of Buffalo says people choose online education because it provides a convenient and flexible studying method. It does not require students to attend physical classes. This is ideal for people who work and have other commitments. Online learning allows individuals to finish their degrees while working, raising a family, or in-between jobs. Other reasons are the diversity of programs and courses, the lower total costs, and commuting avoidance.

The number of online degrees and certificates offered by Contra Costa College has increased significantly. The College received a $461,000 grant that allowed the college to expand its online career education program. According to its website, CCC believes that career education helps individuals advance in high-demand sectors. The school offers various degrees and certificates in 20 career education fields. Their online education prepares students to work in a semester or less but also provides the knowledge to earn an associate degree and transfer to a four-year facility. 

“Our ultimate goal is increasing access,” Contra Costa Community College District Associate Vice Chancellor of Educational Services Kelly Schelin stated, who is one of the helped secure the grant funding and made the expansion possible.

It is still being determined if enrollment will increase in future years, but what is clear is that schools around the country are doing what they can to adapt and attract prospective students.