Local colleges see larger-than-average enrollment drops this fall

College enrollment fell nationally, with schools in Pa., NJ, and Delaware seeing larger-than-average dips.

Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

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Colleges across the country saw enrollments dip this fall, with area schools experiencing larger-than-average drops, according to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Nationally, enrollment fell 2.5%. Pennsylvania schools dipped 3.1%, Delaware schools declined 3.2% and New Jersey saw a 4.2% decline.

Combined, the three states had about 37,000 fewer students enroll in colleges this fall compared to fall 2019.

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Explaining these enrollment losses will take time.

It’s clear, however, that the pandemic has hurt some types of schools more than others.

Graduate enrollment, for instance, actually went up this fall, according to the data. So too did undergraduate attendance at four-year private universities.

Undergraduate attendance dipped slightly at four-year private nonprofit schools and four-year public schools.

Community colleges, however, fared far worse. Enrollment at two-year public institutions fell a whopping 10.1% — roughly 544,000 students.

It’s not yet clear why, said Jennifer Causey, a research associate at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. But some informed guesses have emerged.

For starters, many community colleges offer the kind of hands-on vocational training that may be hard to translate to a virtual setting. Also, college enrollment dipped most sharply among low-income high school graduates, a group that disproportionately attends community colleges.

“Normally in times of recession people flock to community colleges,” Causey said. “But we’re not seeing that this year.”

Though the National Student Clearinghouse did not release more detailed state data, Causey said that enrollment patterns in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware largely followed national trends. In those states, Causey said, community colleges have been hit hardest.

“A lot of the declines were happening legitimately [in] the community college sector,” Causey said.

The enrollment declines in New Jersey and Delaware stood out compared to past years.

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Pennsylvania’s dip, however, was in line with longer-term trends that predate the pandemic.

In 2019, the Keystone State saw a 2.3% enrollment drop. In 2018, it was even larger — a 4.2% dip, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Officials in the state university system have long blamed demographics for these trends. Due to population shifts and sagging birth rates, Pennsylvania has produced fewer and fewer high school graduates. Demographers expect the trend to continue for at least another decade.

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