COVID-19 has raised a number of major questions for educators, one of which is “Why are college applications decreasing?” Higher education lost about 400,000 students this fall. Are these students taking a gap year between high school and college? If so, that might be a good thing, since data suggests that a gap year can actually help students. The most important question is, “Will students put off college for a significant period, or choose not to go to college because of financial hardship?”
Fall 2020 enrollment data shows the largest decreases falling across community colleges and public universities, especially among lower income and minority students. This last data point is perhaps the most concerning. Educators need to be especially watchful and mindful of where these students land, and how we engage them and bring them into higher education after an (unplanned) gap year. Why? Because putting off college can have a significant impact on lifetime earnings, and overall education level continues to be one of the strongest predictors of lifetime earnings.
According to the Social Security Administration, men with bachelor’s degrees earn approximately $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with bachelor’s degrees earn $630,000 more. Men with graduate degrees earn $1.5 million more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with graduate degrees earn $1.1 million more.
For colleges and universities, the critical question is whether or not the decline in enrollment is temporary, and if there is a shift in the perceived value of higher education. Given that the biggest declines in enrollment are at community colleges, with losses of lower-income and urban high school students, I think we’re not facing a structural long-term concern among the college or university enterprise. Colleges and universities may face short-term financial challenges, but overall demand is not likely to shift. However, an entire generation of poor and urban students may face greater future challenges and lower future earnings due to lack of college enrollment.