COVID-19 has upended the traditional logic of recessions and higher education. Typically, when jobs evaporate, Americans turn to colleges and universities to increase their skills and marketability. With this downturn, though, the increased interest is there, but enrollments aren’t.
This fall, undergraduate enrollment decreased by 2.5 percent from 2019, and some of the steepest declines were at the two-year institutions (-7.5 percent) and for-profit universities (-1.9 percent) that typically see the greatest surges from newly-unemployed workers looking to retrain. More than 4 in 10 adults say that the pandemic has made them more likely to pursue additional education—yet they are far more skeptical about whether doing so will be worth the cost or lead to a good job. These potential students see tremendous risk, and they’re paralyzed.
The financial risk of entering higher education was already high, precisely because of the cost of failure. Degrees hold significant weight in the