The Pandemic Educated Generation: The Aftermath on College Enrollment

Within months the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the ordinary. Plexiglass barriers, masks, and working from home became a part of everyday life. While many full-time workers relished in the new work-from-home landscape, students, on the other hand, faced massive disruption during the peaks of the pandemic in what are supposed to be the best years of their life.

Students Succumb to Online Learning

ACT surveyed first-year college students who took the ACT® test between 2017 and 2019. The study found that two out of three students battled academic challenges and concerns caused by the sudden switch to online learning.

Students responded to an open-ended question, “For the most part, how would you describe the quality of your learning now, compared to when you were at school?”

Responses include little motivation, inability to retain information, and lack of hands-on learning. These challenges led students to have even more concerns about their future education.

82% of students surveyed indicated concerns that pandemic-driven online learning would negatively impact their success next year, while 76% expressed concern that online education may have long-term consequences.

Current college junior Zach Sockol recounts his freshman year during the swift transition to online learning at Northern Illinois University.

“I think the biggest challenge for just online classes is not getting sidetracked during class. I feel there’s a certain amount of discipline you have to show when it comes to online classes because there is so much more flexibility compared to in-person classes that it is easy for you to get off schedule.”

Sockol felt that his university handled the transition well and did not see it as daunting as many others did. Although he did not struggle, many of his classmates faced challenges almost synonymous with online learning.

Enrollment is Eroding

Physical and mental concerns, restricted campus living, and financial hardships discouraged many from leaping into university enrollment. Unfortunately, this leaves many U.S. universities and colleges in an enrollment crisis.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports, “higher education enrollment fell a further 2.7 percent in the fall of 2021 following a 2.5 percent drop in the preceding fall. Continued enrollment losses in the pandemic represent a total two-year decline of 5.1 percent or 938,000 students since fall 2019.”

A majority of students surveyed by the National Library of Medicine reported increased levels of social isolation.

College student mental health is a significant concern. Depression and anxiety are leading mental health issues plaguing college students even before the pandemic, leading to more catastrophic results. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for college students.

The National Library of Medicine also concluded that 71% of students surveyed said they experienced increased amounts of stress and anxiety due to the pandemic. In addition, stress caused by the pandemic and the mounting pressure of college forced many students to drop out.

Of the 2.6 million first-year students entering college in fall 2019, only 74% returned for their second year, two percent higher than the previous year and the highest dropout rate since 2012.

Enrollment in public two-year colleges saw the most significant decrease. A large population of the student body in these institutions is considered low-income. Due to the hardships forced on families by the pandemic, many would-be students delayed their education.

Trades Enrollment is Up

Choosing trade schools over college has long carried a stigma as the lesser option, increasing labor shortages even before the pandemic. As a result, construction, HVAC, manufacturing, electricians, plumbers, and many other skilled positions are left open as over a third of the workforce sees the pandemic as the perfect time to exit.

Coined the “Great Retirement,” almost 30 million baby boomers left the labor force in the third quarter of the pandemic, leaving gaps in skilled trades positions the labor force could not fill.

The Associated General Contractors of America report that 89% of contractors have difficulty finding qualified workers, while 61% experience job delays due to worker shortages.

As Gen Z witnesses the stress of online learning and the looming possibility of student loan debt, the trades quickly become a more viable option.

Data from October 2019 through September 2020 report a 73% growth from 2009 in new apprenticeship programs.

What the Future of Higher Education Holds

Higher education institutions make tremendous strides to evolve in the new normal resulting from the pandemic. But is it enough to keep students enrolled?

As restrictions lessen, enrollment may stabilize. However, the impacts on the pandemic-educated generation are synonymous with zoom graduations, campus curfews, and virtual learning.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Credit: Pexels.


Kristina Lazzara-Saari
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Kristina Lazzara-Saari is a freelance writer at Wealth of Geeks. She is an experienced narrator with proven success in digital and print creation and strategy. She writes about complex topics to make them more understandable to a wide audience.

When she’s not writing for Wealth of Geeks, she is either playing with her two dogs, practicing the French Horn, or going for a run.