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College enrollment: 'We're seeing a much broader base of declines,' expert says

Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss how higher education enrollment is declining and how some students are deciding to go 2-year colleges instead of 4-year colleges due to affordability.

Video Transcript

KARINA MITCHELL: Welcome back to Yahoo Finance. Well, a new report finds since 2019, undergrad enrollment has dropped off by more than a million, raising concern about a potential shift in attitudes towards higher learning. And here with more on why kids are hitting the brakes on a traditional college degree, we are joined by Doug Shapiro, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center executive director.

Doug, Thanks so much for your time today. You have a really comprehensive report, and we'll get into that in a minute. But I'm just asking for your sort of sense. Why are people deciding to sit out? Is it the pandemic? Is it the higher cost? Is it the craziness involved with trying to get into college at this point?

DOUG SHAPIRO: Well, last year, I think it was pretty clear that this was being driven by all the disruptions of the pandemic. Almost all of the declines last year were in community colleges, and those are the institutions that serve many of the lower-income students and communities that were most affected by the impacts of COVID-19 and also that had-- often had difficulty adapting to online instruction. But this year, it's-- it's a very different phenomenon. We're seeing a much broader base of declines.

The pain is evenly split this year between two-year and four-year colleges, especially the less selective and public four-year schools where affordability and student debt have become larger concerns. So I think that suggests that more students are questioning the value of going to college, not just whether this is a good time to go. I think they're less confident about what the payoff will be, particularly now, when there is high demand for low-skill workers without a degree. And-- and their wages are rising.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: So Doug, do you know where these students are going if they're choosing to not go to college? Is it that they're taking a gap year or two, or are they-- do they not have plans to go to college and they're going to get into a trade, go to trade school? Or do they have other plans?

DOUG SHAPIRO: Yeah, we don't really know their plans. It's hard to say. What we assumed when the numbers fell so dramatically last year, that this was a gap-year phenomenon. Students were choosing to sit out for a year, hoping that the conditions of the pandemic would improve, and planning to come back the next year.

But what we found this year, when we followed up on those students, was-- was just the opposite. Very, very few of them came back this year, even though the-- the conditions on campuses had been much improved. Obviously, we have vaccines. We have a much better ability of the colleges and universities themselves to handle kind of pandemic protocols and to reassure students and parents about students being on campus again. And yet virtually none of those students who didn't enroll last year have come back this year.

KARINA MITCHELL: Was there a difference, sir, in the drop-off rate at private versus public, and were there certain sort of areas or majors that saw more of a drop-off than others?

DOUG SHAPIRO: Well, that's a very-- it's a very interesting question because, again, this is something that's different this year, very different this year, from last year, where we're looking at the situation in four-year colleges that, in many cases, there has been a-- a slight rebound in the number of new freshmen coming in, but only at the most selective, the most elite, colleges and universities. So the-- the public flagships and the most competitive private nonprofits-- their numbers did increase this year. But all the rest of the four-year institutions, the-- the less selective, maybe your regional public institutions and smaller private nonprofits, saw continuing declines.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Can you tell us what some of the majors are that are seeing this decline? What are some areas of study that students are not necessarily going into right now?

DOUG SHAPIRO: Well, most of these declines are pretty much across the board. Certainly, they're larger in some of the areas like liberal arts and the humanities, which have been declining for years, foreign languages, communications and journalism, sorry to say. And even in places where there are increases like in computer science, for example, the increases are quite small, only-- only a couple of percent, so nowhere near the kind of level of increase that you-- you would expect in the current economy for computer scientists, and certainly nowhere near sufficient to meet the future need for computer scientists in the years to come.

KARINA MITCHELL: All right, we will leave it there. Doug Shapiro, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center executive director, thank you so much for your time today.