I-Team: Pandemic blamed for sharp decline in college enrollment, high tuition costs a factor too

I-Team

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – The pandemic has high school students rethinking their college career choices.  

A new study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center looked at year-to-year fall enrollment numbers and found a sharp decline. The 22News I-Team looked at how the data are translating to Massachusetts and at a local community college. 

On a recent afternoon, you could feel the excitement in the air at Holyoke Community College. On a warm spring day, second-year students were picking up their cap and gown. Paul Giovanni Borowski is graduating with honors, and that’s no small feat because the second half of his college tenure at HCC was disrupted by the pandemic. 

“I think a lot of discipline had to go into learning from home because it’s so easy to get caught up in your own activities and stuff like that,” said Paul Giovanni Borowski. 

While COVID-19 changed college life, it also disrupted learning at the high school level.  In the Springfield City School district, it was already a challenge to ensure students continue their education beyond high school. Dr. Yolanda Johnson, who heads up student services, said the pandemic only made it worse.  

“Many families were not able to pivot and work from home, and were furloughed, or may have been laid off. So, we have students who are making decisions around college or support my family,” said Dr. Yolanda Johnson. 

The 22News I-Team examined the numbers and found that nationally, undergraduate enrollment this past fall declined by 3.6 percent.  In Massachusetts, that decline is a bit more pronounced, closer to 4 percent.  That’s a difference of just over 16,900 students in the Commonwealth from 2019. 

Nationally 

  • 2020: 17,778,484 – down 3.6% 
  • 2019: 18,239,874 – down 1.3% 

Massachusetts  

  • 2020: 411,052 – down 4.0% 
  • 2019: 427,958 – down 1.3%  

Difference – 16,906 

The study also showed that nationally two-year colleges saw the steepest declines. They saw a 21 percent drop over 2019 or just over 207,000 students. 

Two-year Colleges 

  • 2020: 779,328 – down 21.0% 
  • 2019: 986,623 – down 0.9% 

Director of Admissions at Holyoke Community College, Mark Hudgik, said HCC noticed admission activity coming to a screeching halt when the pandemic began. 

Nearly 4,900 students were enrolled here in the fall of 2019 before the pandemic. In the fall of 2020, enrollment was closer to 4,200.  Hudgik said students already on the fence, to begin with, are even more hesitant about college. 

“We’re seeing pretty significant declines in applications for first-time students, first in their families to go to college,” said Hudgik. 

In West Springfield, the school’s superintendent told the 22News I-Team they noticed a shift in the way students thought of higher education a few years before the pandemic.  Tim Connor cited the high cost of college tuition. He said many high school students don’t want college debt. 

 “It’s kind of the perfect storm,” said Tim Connor. “The four-year colleges had to go full remote. So, I’m sure families who are in that position are saying I’m paying $70,000 a year on my child’s tuition in the kitchen or living room doing their work remotely.  So, I do think that added to that a little bit.” 

West Springfield is one of 18 districts in the state that has a program for students to learn a trade while in high school, Connor said.

Dr. Yolanda Johnson said Springfield Public Schools are focused on making sure their students who decide to take a gap year, get the help they need to apply for college the following fall semester. 

“So, we are really expanding our approach,” said Johnson. “Looking at our faith-based community, looking at how we continue to engage our parents, and [also] making sure that all hands are on deck in supporting students with their gap year.” 

As for HCC student Paul Giovanni Borowski, he’s going on to film school in Florida. His advice to high school students, “I think you should understand what you’re getting into and what you’re paying money for.” 

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