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College enrollment down big since last year
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College enrollment down big since last year


Throughout the country, the number of college students has decreased drastically as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, freshman enrollment is down more than 16% from last year. Overall, undergraduate enrollment is down 4% compared to the same time last year.

Community colleges are taking the biggest hit.

The rate of first-time students at community colleges nationwide has gone down by nearly 23%, the center said. At public two-year colleges, enrollment has declined more than 9%.

After the 2008 recession, college enrollment increased, said the center's executive director, Doug Shapiro.

This time around, that isn’t the case.

According to Susan Berley, Western Piedmont Community College’s vice president for student success and support services, Burke County’s lone secondary institution has been affected by this trend, too.

Berley said the number of students enrolled in classes for the fall 2020 semester has decreased by 8.8%, which falls in line with the national trend of more than 9%.

The fall semester headcount is estimated at 1,839, down from 2,016 for fall 2019, Berley said.

Reasons for drop

The reasons for the lower numbers of students enrolled are many. Some students may believe their health and safety is jeopardized by being on campus, with colleges serving as hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks. Other students may feel that remote learning and the lack of access to school facilities like gyms, student centers and libraries may not be worth the high costs of tuition and other expenses.

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Other students may be saddled with expanded duties at their homes, such as caring for children who are learning remotely or taking care of vulnerable family members.

Some students also may decide to take a gap year to find work after being laid off from their previous jobs.

Colleges have instituted a host of measures to make up for the financial losses from the pandemic.

For many schools, the decreases in enrollment are not the only worry colleges are facing. With fewer or no students living on campus, colleges have lost the room and board fees they can rely on in a normal year.

Many colleges were forced to cancel their spring sports teams’ remaining schedules.

On Monday, The New York Times published a report outlining some of the measures colleges have taken to combat the losses.

Ohio Wesleyan University is eliminating 18 majors, while the University of Florida’s board of trustees earlier this month took its first steps toward furloughing faculty members.

Other schools, including the University of California, Berkeley, have paused admissions to some graduate programs. Still others are instituting hiring freezes and early retirements, or consolidating curriculum programs.

Local plans

As for what measures Western Piedmont is taking, Berley said the college will revisit its plans upon the completion of the current academic year, which includes the summer and fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters.

“The college bases operating decisions on semester headcount and annual enrollment,” Berley said. “As with any semester, if headcount for a particular class does not meet the threshold for the class to be held, then the class is canceled and students who registered for the class are moved to another section if possible. Once registration for spring 2021 is completed, the college will have a better indicator of annual enrollment for 2020-21 and the potential impact of the decline from fall 2020.”

Western Piedmont’s spring 2021 semester registration begins Monday.

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Johnny Casey is a staff writer and can be reached at or 828-432-8907. 

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Johnny Casey has been covering education and writing feature stories for The News Herald since Aug. 2019

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