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Why is college enrollment plummeting during the pandemic?

Online learning’s become the norm for most colleges and universities. Photo by Pixabay

College enrollment rates during the COVID-19 pandemic are drastically decreasing. 

From high school seniors to priorly enrolled college students, higher education seems to be less of a priority in the face of a global crisis. Community college enrollment rates in San Luis Obispo County dropped nearly 20% from the 2020-21 academic year to Fall Quarter of 2021-22. 

Why the sudden shift? Ansyn Meachan (he/him), a Cuesta College student, explained his choice to take a gap year during the 2020-21 school year.

“During the semester where COVID kicked in like halfway through, my grades drastically dropped because I just was not good at online school and doing it all on my own,” Meachan said. “Because of that, I took a year off during the time where it was all online schooling.” 

As schools transitioned to an online platform, many students found themselves in the position of being liable for their own education. As Meachan stated, online school turned out to be a more isolating experience, making some students feel entirely responsible for their success. Although students had access to office hours as a means of getting help from professors, it didn’t offer the personal, first hand experience of in-person classes. 

While online schooling often offered open-book tests and quizzes as a means of alleviating stress and pressure, this impersonal teaching style may have hurt students who benefit from hands-on learning.

Annabelle Smith, a student attending Belmont University, shared their struggle with online learning, in comparison to those of their classmates. 

“Personally I did not do well with online education at all,” Smith said. “Somehow my school’s grade point average increased, but mine decreased a lot.”

Beyond the complications with online learning, students also faced safety concerns when it came to choosing where to attend, if they planned to attend campus at all. Since more populous areas tend to have higher COVID-19 infection rates, that eliminated some options for those who were worried about the spread of the virus. 

Smith expressed her hesitation and concern in the decision-making process because of COVID-19 rates. For some, making a college decision mainly boiled down to which area had the lowest infection-rates. 

Smith described their hesitation when it came to enrolling in college in the first place. They explained that their ultimate decision to prioritize COVID-19 safety led her to a school that she was hardly interested in. 

“Additionally, my school hardly responded to COVID,” Smith said. “They offered no testing, no vaccination information, and no mask mandate.”

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a considerable fluctuation in the livelihoods of people around the globe. For many, the pressure of day-to-day life in a pandemic, and the stress of having to be self-sufficient in school, wound up damaging their overall wellbeing. 

Smith opened up about the way the lockdown affected the financial stability of their family. Adapting to the change in her parents’ incomes additionally impacted their ability to afford a college education. 

“My dad is in charge of my college funds and he works in real estate so he was hardly making any money during the pandemic at all,” Smith said. “Because of that, tuition cost was a major factor. Though, in the end, my mom decided to pitch in some money for tuition, as she’s a therapist and her business was skyrocketing during the pandemic.”

Smith was able to fall back on one parent while the other was struggling financially, but for some students, that wasn’t an option. As the pandemic affected businesses all around the world, many families experienced financial crises. 

Withal, there were silver linings in the unexpected transition the world faced nearly two years ago. For some students, time off was just what they needed to gain clarity on goals. For others, the pandemic highlighted just how important prioritizing their mental health was. 

For many, the first few weeks of lockdown posed a drastic change from the ever-going hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, and allowed many to reflect on their values and priorities. Meachan conveyed that the year he took off of school gave him the opportunity to discover what he was truly passionate about. 

“During that year off I found out what I definitely want to do with my career, which is photography,” Meachan said. “Before that, I was not sure at all what I wanted to do.” 

Similarly, Smith experienced a call-to-action with the unforeseen shift in the world. 

“Being in lockdown, I realized that my health should be prioritized over my academics,” Smith said. “I was always taught that academics come first and then everything else. My parents are most definitely not happy with my decision to drop out, but I’ve realized that I need to take care of my physical and mental health before moving forward with my schooling.” 

Meachan is now back attending Cuesta College with more clarity on his goal to pursue photography, and Smith plans to continue her education elsewhere. She wanted to wait until infection rates decreased and attending in-person classes became a safer option. 

As it is still unknown what the future will hold in terms of COVID-19 safety on college campuses, a similar uncertainty exists regarding what higher education enrollment rates will look like in the coming years.