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College enrollment fell to lowest level since 2007 amid pandemic

·2 min read

The coronavirus pandemic hit the education sector exceptionally hard, and college enrollments plunged in 2020 to the lowest level since 2007.

According to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday, enrollment in schools dropped by 2.9 million from 2019 to 2020 and colleges by 615,000. Enrollment among those aged 35 and below has also dipped to the lowest level in over 20 years, with community colleges leading the decline.

Brookings has suggested that many young people are forgoing a college education to work amid a historic race between employers to fill jobs as the country recovers from the pandemic-induced recession. 

Specifically, Brookings authors noted that the share of young adults enrolled in postsecondary education — i.e. a two- or a four-year program — declined by 1 percentage point during the academic year since the recession in 2020. 

A chart comparing college enrollment during the COVID-19 recession and enrollment during other business cycles.
College enrollment dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brookings)

That's in "stark contrast to the 2001 and 2008 recessions," Brookings noted. "Enrollment in postsecondary education following the 2008 recession increased by 1.9 percentage points by the 2009-2010 academic year."

Brookings added that as students find "the costs of attending college greater than the benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, more young adults with a high school degree did not enroll in postsecondary education ... compared to prior recessions."

The Census Bureau noted that graduate school enrollment in 2020 "held steady" at 3.8 million, which was "not statistically different from 2019." 

At the same time, the trend with regards to college students was mirrored in the pre-school arena.

Adam Soisson, a freshman at Notre Dame University, stands dressed in a costume outside Sun Life stadium before the BCS National Championship college football game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Miami, Florida January 7, 2013.  REUTERS/Mike Segar    (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Adam Soisson, a college freshman at Notre Dame University, stands dressed in a costume outside Sun Life stadium before the BCS National Championship college football game in Miami, Florida on January 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

According to the census data, the percentage of kids ages 3 and 4 enrolled in school fell from 54% in 2019 to 40% in 2020. This is "the first time since 1996 that fewer than half of the children in this age group were enrolled," the release stated.

Enrollment in nursery school also fell by 25% and in kindergarten by 9%. 

Child care issues were a factor: Enrollment of children between 3 and 4 years of age who have a working mother also fell by 35% from 2019 to 2020, compared to a 10% decrease of other 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled.

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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