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  • Susan Stoderl

Decline in College Enrollment | Is This Significant for Adult Literacy?


Community colleges especially hit.
College Enrollment Decline and Adult Literacy

A contributing factor to the decline of college enrollment is the substantial decline in the birth rate since the Baby Boom post WWII. In 1950, the U.S. birthrate was 24.1 births per 1000 people. In 2024, the number has dropped to 12.009, or less than half. Since fewer students are graduating from high school, fewer are enrolling in college.


College tuition expenses have increased over the years. In 1970, the average cost of attending a four-year public college in the United States for tuition, fees, room, and board per year was $1,410 (or adjusted for inflation $8,730). By the 2020-21 academic year, the cost had increased to $10,560.


COVID-19 interrupted life in so many ways, but one of those was educational plans. Financial instability, job losses, and uncertainty made prospective students reconsider their college plans or delay enrollment.


Many students now opt for alternative career paths, such as vocational training, online certifications, and entrepreneurship. These options offer specialized skills with no traditional college degree and are considerably less expensive and time efficient.


Some regions have experienced declining high school graduation rates. Many things contribute to the downturn, such as economic conditions, labor market trends, quality of education, lack of family support for education, and peer influence. Fewer high school graduates means less college enrollment.


Community colleges have been the hardest hit—an enrollment decline of ten percent in one year. First-time enrollees dropped 21 percent. Why is this? Because those who attend community colleges are often working-class whites, Black, Hispanic, and Native American. The people hardest hit by the pandemic were the same. Many poorer students did not have access to remote learning. Another factor was “Zoom Fatigue.” Lecture-heavy online classes made it difficult for some students to engage. Community colleges lost thirteen percent of their employees nationally between January 2020 and April 2022. This meant that much-needed work to keep the colleges going didn’t happen. For those who struggle to afford community college, this is a tremendous blow to their learning.


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