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Comeback season

July 1, 2021
Will student enrollment at colleges and universities rebound after Covid-19?

The 2021-22 school year is about to begin, and most education institutions are on track to welcome students back to their classrooms and campuses.

But for many colleges and universities, there is a lingering question: Will they come back?

The Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally altered the college experience for millions of students. Instead of experiencing the social experience of living in student housing, they were forced to move off campus—to home, if they were lucky enough to have that as an option. Instead of meeting and mingling with fellow students in classrooms, labs and dining halls, they were relegated to online environments and remote interactions with classmates and faculty.

Students have their own personal stories for deciding to halt their postsecondary pursuits, and no doubt some of those decisions were not instigated by the pandemic. But the numbers don’t lie: A comparison of enrollment numbers before Covid-19 (spring 2020) and after (spring 2021) shows that hundreds of thousands of college students opted not to take part in what higher education institutions were offering in 2021.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that spring 2021 enrollment at higher education institutions fell by 3.5%, compared with the previous year. That amounts to by 603,000 fewer students. The undergraduate numbers were even worse—a drop of 727,000 students. On a percentage basis, community colleges were hit hardest—their numbers declined by 9.5%.

Among all age groups, traditional college-age students (ages 18 to 24) declined the most—5%.

Have conditions for the fall 2021 semester improved enough to turn the numbers around?

Having effective vaccines has made a difference; many universities have eased masking and social distancing requirements for people on campus who have been vaccinated. Many institutions are requiring students to get vaccinated, but there also are many schools that are prohibited legally from requiring vaccinations.

Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., is not requiring students to be vaccinated, but “non-vaccinated students will be charged a Health & Safety Fee of $1,500 per semester to cover the laboratory and administrative cost of initial and regular testing.”

Still, no one can say with certainty how closely the 2021-22 campus experience will resemble life before Covid. Higher education administrators are hoping it’s close enough to persuade reluctant students to once again give college the old college try.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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