Using Scholarships to Battle Decreasing Enrollment
By Matt Konrad
Two years after COVID first hit the United States, it’s abundantly clear that the pandemic made a significant impact on college enrollment. As NPR reported in January 2022, “Compared with the fall of 2019, the last fall semester before the coronavirus pandemic, undergraduate enrollment has fallen a total of 6.6%. That represents the largest two-year decrease in more than 50 years.”
In total numbers, that’s a dropoff of more than a million students. And community colleges—which serve high numbers of low-income, nontraditional and underserved populations—had it even worse, losing a full 13% of their enrollment since the start of the pandemic.
Initially, it seemed that students who delayed college attendance during the confusing, stop-and-start, part-remote days of the Fall 2020 semester would be likely to pick up where they left off in Fall 2021, but that turned out to be overly optimistic. National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) research “found that very few high school graduates followed the gap year enrollment pattern. In fact, the gap year enrollment rate for the class of 2020 declined slightly from previous classes … to just 2.0%.”
And, once again, that impact was disproportionately felt by those already fighting an uphill battle to earn a degree. Higher-income high school graduates in the class of 2020 were still far more likely to enroll in college immediately than those from low-income schools (65% and 49%, respectively), and rural students are disappearing from the rolls at alarming rates.
The Missing Million
As you might expect, the high school graduates that aren’t going to college are, instead, joining the workforce. As NSC’s Doug Shapiro told NPR:
“The easiest assumption is that they’re out there working. Unemployment is down. The labor market is good. Wages are rising for workers in low-skilled jobs. So if you have a high school diploma, this seems like a pretty good time to be out there making some money. … It’s very tempting for high school graduates, but the fear is that they are trading a short-term gain for a long-term loss.”
Depending on location, living situation, skills and opportunities for promotion, that long-term loss could be in the millions of dollars over a full career, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the earning power of a degree.
It’s a huge opportunity to walk away from—but, for students who need to pay the rent and put food on the table right now, it’s equally hard to cut working hours or scrape together a tuition payment every semester. Those basic needs won’t wait until after graduation, but they can also leave talented, determined young people stuck at a dead end.
Providing Support, Resources and Flexibility through Scholarships
The private sector can do a great deal to ensure those students don’t have to choose between getting by and getting ahead, especially in partnership with federal, state and institutional assistance.
Most directly, private scholarships are the most flexible, customizable way to get students the financial support they need to balance school, work and life. Private-sector dollars can be easier to access and more deadline-flexible than federal or state grants; they can reach more broadly than financial aid packages from individual schools.
Thoughtfully designed private scholarships can help students at any point in their educational journey—and those who’ve left their path and want to return (a surprisingly growing group). With award criteria that are customizable by the program funder, scholarships are able to support students at risk of dropping out; students who are unable to access federal funds; or students whose test scores or transcripts are decades old.
Additionally, while there are some restrictions and tax implications to consider, private scholarship dollars can often be used for expenses beyond tuition, from basic needs to essential supplies. And companion emergency grant programs can supplement existing federal funding and provide fast, vital funds when students face unexpected expenses.
Beyond the Check
Scholarship providers are also in a unique position to connect students with the additional support that makes the difference between starting a degree and completing it.
For example, nearly $4 billion in Pell Grant funding went unclaimed by the class of 2021 simply because they didn’t complete a FAFSA. By encouraging or requiring FAFSA completion by eligible students—and by providing guidance or mentorship alongside the scholarship—providers can ensure low-income students don’t miss this bedrock opportunity.
Mentors and coaches—even those who students only meet virtually—can also help students as they work on choosing a college, and connect them with schools that go the extra mile for underserved, minority and low-income students (like those featured in this article, who have increased low-income persistence by providing clear, generous aid packages and ensuring internship and enrichment opportunities.)
As we pass the two-year mark of the COVID pandemic, we have gained a great deal of clarity about why students skip college, and what prevents them from returning. Today, we can use those lessons to start addressing and reversing the precipitous enrollment decline, with private scholarships at the forefront. Scholarship America invites you to join us in that effort.