Commentary: College Enrollment Drops as Students Seek Alternatives

by Kerry McDonald


The past two years have been marked by major education disruption at the K-12 level, as more families questioned the schooling status quo during prolonged school closures and remote learning. They left district schools in droves, choosing instead to become independent homeschoolers, join learning pods and microschools, or find high-quality virtual learning platforms.

Public school enrollment plummeted during the 2021/2021 academic year, and continued its decline this academic year in many areas, despite the fact that schools reopened for full-time, in-person learning.

Higher education is seeing a similar trend. College enrollment dropped in the 2020/2021 school year as many colleges and universities turned to remote learning, and it has also not rebounded.

In fact, The New York Times recently reported that the college enrollment decline may indeed be worsening this year. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment this spring is down 662,000 students compared to last year, or a drop of 4.7 percent. Graduate school enrollment also declined this year compared to last year.

“Prospective college students may be weighing the relative value of jobs that require or expect a college degree against equally attractive opportunities that do not,” wrote the Times.

These students are smart. They are recognizing that the conveyor belt to college, and the debt they assume along the way, may not be the best option. They are weighing the benefits of a college degree against the costs, both financial costs and opportunity costs, and determining that perhaps another pathway to adulthood might make more sense.

On this week’s episode of the LiberatED Podcast, I interviewed Cameron Sorsby, CEO of Praxis, about alternatives to college. Praxis is an apprenticeship boot camp program that helps young people to develop skills and experience that make them valuable to prospective employers.

Over the past couple of years, Sorsby has been seeing increased interest in Praxis, along with a growing cultural acceptance of alternatives to college. “As soon as it became more socially acceptable to pursue other options outside of the typical higher ed track, you see more people flocking to it,” said Sorsby.

More individuals and families are questioning the conventional K-12 and college pathway, and are exploring other options. Their demand for both schooling and college alternatives will continue to dramatically reshape education for years to come.

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Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and host of the weekly LiberatED podcast. She is also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.




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