What College Enrollment Trends Say About the New Economy

We know the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the U.S. workforce forever. What we don’t know for sure is how the changes will play out. Some are accelerations of trends that began around the time of the financial crisis in 2008 or earlier, while others were directly inspired by the pandemic. Still others were temporary dislocations that will revert. But it’s anyone’s guess which changes are which.

Rather than focusing on current numbers that are confusing, we may get a clearer picture by looking at trends in college enrollment. These represent decisions made by individuals today considering their own long-term futures.

College admissions have been falling since 2010, and really dived during the pandemic. This was blamed mostly on the lockdown, and many commentators expected enrollment to not only rebound as the pandemic eased, but to exceed 2019 levels as students returned after postponing their studies. Instead, numbers have continued to fall. Enrollment dropped at a rate of 0.8% per year in the 10 years prior to the pandemic, then 2.5% in 2020 and 2.7% in 2021. An even larger decline is expected for 2022 when the numbers are counted in the Fall. These declines happened even though the U.S. population climbed by 7% and increasing numbers of foreign students were included in the enrollment numbers.

There is one post-secondary educational sector with gangbuster growth. Enrollment in two-year agricultural sciences degrees rose 41% in 2021. Other hot two-year degrees include construction management - up 18% - while blue-collar technical fields are up an average of 7%.

It’s important to understand these are not “vocational” or “trade school” programs to give unskilled individuals basic job skills. The students in these programs are usually working in their fields of study and looking for advanced instruction in theory and broader business skills so they can move up to management jobs or start their own businesses, taking positions that in the past would likely have been held by four-year college graduates without specific training. While writing this column I had my semi-annual HVAC inspection and both technicians were enrolled in two-year precision manufacturing programs, one to qualify for a management position and the other with the ambition of starting his own company.