Undergraduate enrollment is down, but motivated students are finding a way to advance their education with rigorous courses and exams

No, it’s not “the end of going to college”

Undergraduate enrollment is down, but motivated students are finding a way to advance their education with rigorous courses and exams

According to data from National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment declined by nearly 3 percent this spring, following a similar drop last fall. These statistics have inspired dire headlines such as “Higher Ed in Crisis” and even “The End of the University,” but the truth is more nuanced. While college admissions may be down at most universities overall, graduate school enrollments are up significantly. 

It makes sense that, in a time when medical professionals are very much in the limelight, there has been greater demand for healthcare and nursing education. However, even in a time of deep concern about undergraduate enrollments, many providers have also seen increases for SAT and ACT products.

This says to me that, despite the disruptions of the past year, motivated students are still taking an active role in their own education and looking to differentiate themselves. 

Unfortunately, those disruptions on the path to college have had a disproportionate impact on some student populations, especially Black and Latinx students. This is where high schools can and must help. One way they can do that is by broadening access to AP classes and using their American Rescue Act and/or ESSER funding to provide the supplemental materials students need to master concepts and get scores that will earn them college credit. 

Even in the best of times, there is a misconception that students who take AP courses don’t need support because they’re already advanced, which simply isn’t true. Students enter AP courses with varying degrees of background knowledge and skill. And if you look at the demographics, more than half of all white students who take the AP exam earn a 3 or higher, while only 24 percent of Latinx and 5 percent of Black students earn a 3 or above. 

Making AP courses and supplemental materials more broadly available will help those populations not only learn and retain the AP content, but earn those 3s, 4s, and 5s that translate into college credit and therefore eliminate some of the skyrocketing costs of higher education.

Taking AP courses isn’t just about achieving one score on one exam, though. Being part of the learning community in these rigorous courses prepares students for what college courses will be like.

When those students graduate, the critical thinking and collaboration skills they learned in their AP courses will help them make the academic and social transition from high school to college. My hope is that we will see a great surge in access to AP courses and materials over the next couple of years. 

I believe that the learning disruptions of the past year have shown students (and their parents) that getting a good education depends on setting and achieving their own goals, and has highlighted the importance of taking full responsibility for their education. As these self-motivated students look to the future, they’re going to have a real hunger for getting into college and moving into professions that have a mission. They may have lost some learning time, but educators will be ready to meet them with a burst of energy to get those students back on the right path to college.

So, while some may predict “the end of the university,” I firmly believe that the experiences of the pandemic will spur students to blaze their own path to the higher education that works best for them.

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