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[COMMENTARY] Reverse the Trend: How to Solve Continued College Enrollment Decline

[COMMENTARY] Reverse the Trend: How to Solve Continued College Enrollment Decline

According to the latest jobs reports by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there are a record 11.4 million job openings as of the end of April 2022. Wages are at a near all-time high for lower-end paying jobs, and during COVID, many would-be first-time or current students opted to delay higher education to join the workforce.

(Photo by Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Experts have considered if the pandemic caused the drop in student enrollment or if it only accelerated something that was already in motion. College enrollment has actually been on a downward trend for the last decade for both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.

The latest report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows a continued decline in student enrollment since the start of the pandemic with more than 662,000 fewer students enrolling in higher education. This brings the total drop in undergraduate enrollment to 1.4 million or 9.4% since the spring of 2020.

The steepest drop in enrollment was at the community college level with more than half of the post-secondary enrollment losses this spring with 351,000 fewer students, a decline of 7.8%. Transfer student rates from community colleges into four-year institutions also declined according to the latest  COVID-19: Transfer, Mobility, and Progress report.

Data in this report shows undergraduate transfer enrollment dropped another 6.9% over the spring semester, resulting in a total two-year decline of 16% since the beginning of the pandemic, or 827,000 community college students.

Likely the largest question for those weighing entering the labor market versus attending college is the cost. Tuition prices have increased between 8-18% over the last decade at private and public institutions.

The promise of lifetime higher earnings to someone considering these two options seems far off in the future even when someone with a high school diploma on average can have lifetime earnings of $1.6 million vs. someone with an associate’s degree with average lifetime earnings of  $2 million and bachelor’s degree holders having average lifetime earnings of $2.8 million.

But there are several models of solutions on how to reverse these trends.

Programs such as the Dallas County PromiseThe City University of New York College Now Program, and City College of San Francisco, offer students the opportunity to dual enroll in high school, community college, or a four-year institution, with the opportunity to obtain both a high school diploma and up to 60 credit hours towards an Associate or Bachelor degree by the time a student graduates from high school.

Schools like Gilliam Collegiate Academy in Dallas, focus on students who may be the first in their families to obtain a college degree. Gilliam has a 99% graduation rate with more than 70% of students coming from economically disadvantaged homes.

Similar programs include the Pathway to Technology Program in New York City, boasting a public/private partnership with IBM, aimed at helping students complete grades 9-14 so students can graduate with an associate’s degree in the STEM field. The program in Brooklyn has 99% minority enrollment with 74% coming from economically disadvantaged homes.

Other high schools like those in the Cristo Rey Network, blend academics with a work-study program. With 35 schools in more than 24 states, the model has proven to be effective with more than 90% of students matriculating into higher education programs after high school. The college completion rates are also three times higher than the total U.S. Pell population college graduation rate. Pell-eligible grants are given to students that display extreme financial need.

Additionally, school models like the Bard Early College program, in five states and the District of Columbia, work with students where 63% are Pell-eligible and one in two are considered first-generation college students.

Apprenticeship programs at community colleges that offer students the ability to earn wages while learning a skill and earn college credit or a certificate have increased by more than 70% or 1.9 million individuals since 2021, according to the National Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design, the only Historically Black College or University in Michigan, works with corporate brands to create a curriculum that attracts prospective students that have an interest in design and the product industry. The goal of the recently launched masterclass is to remove the cost of tuition as a barrier to attracting talented students of color that have an interest in the industry.

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Some universities offer first-time and transfer students mentoring programs; this proved to be especially helpful at the onset of COVID.

The University of California-Riverside launched the Campus Collective in the fall of 2020 where existing matriculated students could mentor incoming freshman and transfer students. More than 1,600 mentors and more than 2,000 mentees enrolled in the program. The platform was designed by the Boston-based firm, Mentor Collective, and touts more than 160 institutions using its texting-based mentoring model.

Harvard University launched a mentoring program in 2012 with a focus on alumni mentoring first-generation students noting that more than 15% of their students are first-generation college students.

Scholarship programs such as Educational Opportunities and ScholarShot offer recipients four years of mentorship from college graduates already established in their profession.

With so many options available, It will still likely take a collaboration of universities working with the corporate sector and federal government to create different solutions based on each state, different labor markets, and whether an institution is public or private.

But it is worth all the efforts to shape the future for millions of Americans who otherwise will miss out on the opportunities of higher education.

About the Author:
Aracely Muñoz is the Director for Corporate Partnerships at Children’s Medical Center Foundation and a board member for Educational Opportunities. She is a first-generation graduate of Brown University and has an MBA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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