Top Department of Education (ED) officials Wednesday drew attention to the startling enrollment drop and continued troubling trends that have stemmed in part from the coronavirus pandemic.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Under Secretary James Kvaal headlined a Lumina Foundation event titled “Our Nation’s Enrollment Plunge,” and spoke at length about the issue and how to address it to ensure higher education remains a viable option for all students.
Cardona noted the dire impact that the enrollment decrease could have on the economy, the future of the workforce, and the lives of individuals who had to stop or delay their postsecondary career over the past two years, citing figures presented at the event that show higher education has lost more than one million students since the onset of the pandemic.
"The impact of this missing million could be felt for decades. For these students, it could mean fewer opportunities, lower earnings, and even poorer health outcomes,” he said.
Cardona added that the department is working with institutions and leaders to encourage students to re-enroll, specifically students who have earned some credits but stopped short of earning a degree.
“To grow the middle class, we must ensure more students gain the knowledge they need to succeed,” he said.
Kvaal said federal and state governments, as well as institutions and stakeholders all need to be part of the effort to ensure the current enrollment trends are reversed, but cautioned there could potentially be a "permanent dent in our country's educational attainment."
“There's a lot of different factors that are going on here. You have academic disruptions, you have people concerned about getting value for their money in an environment that might be hybrid or go back to being online. Child care concerns. You have a very low unemployment rate, which means that there may be paid alternatives to college that look appealing in the short term,” Kvaal said. “So we need to think very carefully about how we get people back on track.”
The event highlighted how not all sectors of higher education have been impacted evenly. Notably, two-year public institutions saw a roughly 13% drop in enrollment over the course of the past two years and four-year public institutions fared even worse, according to Doug Shapiro, vice president and executive director of National Student Clearinghouse.
Shapiro added that while many initially predicted an upswing in enrollment come fall, that has so far failed to prove true.
"The pandemic might be getting better, but students and colleges are still struggling. Enrollments were widely expected to rebound this fall. Instead, they're still getting worse," Shapiro said.
Many pointed to lower than normal FAFSA completion figures as a troubling sign.
National College Attainment Network (NCAN) Executive Director Kim Cook stressed the importance of continued investment in the federal Pell Grant program to ensure students are able to attend institutions without being saddled by student loan debt.
“The number of affordable public postsecondary options is dwindling for the average Pell Grant recipient,” Cook said. “Even with a celebrated historic $400 increase recently signed into law, [the Pell Grant] is worth only 30% of the average cost of attendance.”
She added that doubling the maximum Pell Grant would make over 80% of two- and four-year public institutions affordable for the average Pell Grant recipient.
Cook pointed to President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to double the maximum Pell Grant and recent budget proposal to significantly increase it as a welcome sign, something Kvaal also noted the importance of to combat the dwindling purchasing power.
“Unfortunately, the purchasing power is only about a third of what it was historically compared to public university tuition,” Kvaal said. “We really need to get those Pell Grant dollars back up in order to bring the cost of college back closer into reach for all students.”
Publication Date: 4/6/2022