The college enrollment rate in the United States continues its historic decline as US colleges and universities saw a drop of almost 500,000 undergraduate students in the fall of 2021.

According to the latest data released on Thursday, the number of students enrolled in college now is more than one million fewer in comparison to pre-pandemic levels.

Doug Shapiro, the head of the research center at National Student Clearinghouse that conducted the study, describes the huge decline in college enrollment as "very frightening." The data shows a 6% drop in undergraduate enrollment compared with the fall of 2019, the last fall semester before the COVID-19 pandemic started, as per New York Times.

Shapiro says it is the largest two-year decrease in more than 50 years, and the community colleges across the country are bleeding from the 13% decrease throughout the pandemic.

However, the study pointed out that fall 2021 numbers show that students seeking bachelor's degrees at four-year colleges compose half of the declining undergraduate students in the country. It is a big shit from numbers from the 2020 fall when the wide majority of the drop-off was among the students seeking an associate degree, as per National Public Radio.

Shapiro noted that the phenomenon appears to be "more widespread" that could indicate the dawn of a whole generation of students "rethinking the value of college itself." Something he considers as "more serious than just a temporary pandemic-related disruption."

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More Than A Pandemic-Caused Disruption

Many were optimistic that supposedly incoming college students who did not enroll in 2020 would return in the next year, considering that in-person classes set-up was increased. However, expectations failed only 2% of 2020 high school graduates who decided not to enroll in college after graduation ended up enrolling in the fall of 2021.

Shapiro assumes that the situation was prompted by the rising wages for workers in low-skilled jobs.

"The easiest assumption is that they're out there working... So if you have a high school diploma, this seems like a pretty good time to be out there making some money," he said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-managers working in the leisure and hospitality industry in December received a 15% higher salary than more than a year ago. Such a situation is alluring for high school students. However, Shapiro said, there is something risky to it in the long run.

College Courses Realignment

"It's very tempting for high school graduates, but the fear is that they are trading a short-term gain for a long-term loss. And the longer they stay away from college, you know, life starts to happen and it becomes harder and harder to start thinking about yourself going back into a classroom," he said

Maria Flynn, CEO of Jobs for the Future, a non-profit dedicated to the American workforce and education system, expects the trend to continue throughout 2022. She believes that there is a need for educational institutions to align their courses with the jobs that are in demand in the market, as per CNBC.

"Those hit hardest by the pandemic are now thinking about how to get back into the labor market, not school," said Flynn.

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