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US college enrolment is dropping, can this be reversed? 

The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the decline in US college enrolment, with a 10% decrease in sign-ups.

The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the decline in US college enrolment, with a 10% decrease in sign-ups. Image: Photo by MD Duran on Unsplash

Daniel Rosensweig
CEO, Chegg
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • US college enrolment trends were falling even before COVID-19 struck.
  • Of those US students opting out, nearly 50% said they failed to see an adequate return on the time and investment required for college study.
  • Higher education institutions must embrace more accessible, on-demand, 24/7, affordable learning to attract students of all ages.

In 2022, 4 million fewer people in America enrolled at a college than ten years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated the decline in US college enrolment, with a 10% decrease in sign-ups. Why? A survey of those students opting out of college revealed that almost half doubted seeing a return on the cost and time invested.

College degrees were once considered a ticket to the middle class or better. Yet, for many Americans, a college degree is expensive, less relevant and takes too long to obtain. This explains why only 37.1% of 25 to 44-year-olds have a bachelor’s degree in the US.

For those students who still believe in the value of college, completing their studies is not guaranteed — one-third of students are dropping out. To make matters worse, many of these students still hold a substantial amount of debt, despite having no credentials to show for it. The best available data from the National Center for Education Statistics concluded that 38-39% of students who took out student loans between 2012-2017 did not finish college during that timeframe. This has caused an additional student loan crisis of people saddled with 'debt but no degree.'

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How bad is the student-loan crisis?

As of 2022, the average student loan debt-per-borrower is $37,113 and in a 2022 poll, 51% of US adults agreed that the cost of higher education “impacted their ability to pursue education after high school.” Based on these statistics, is it any surprise that students are questioning this once sought-after path to the middle class and we're seeing US college enrolment dropping?

The Higher Education landscape

Over the last 30 years, student demographics have shifted steadily away from the 18-year-old, full-time campus resident with no dependents. Recent research by the Lumina Foundation shows that 37% of learners are older than 25, 24% are parents and 64% work full or part-time. For parents, working adults and part-time students, the traditional full-time residential college model doesn’t always work. Who, in today’s economy, can afford to take years away from earning and amass huge debt to study for degrees that are decreasingly relevant to the modern job market?

Chegg recently conducted a survey of US working adults aged 18-50. This showed that for 61%, “balancing my family/personal responsibilities” was the biggest barrier to completing an education programme. And 53% said “the amount of time required” was the greatest barrier.

Education for today’s learner

How can colleges improve their value proposition to restore attendance? The answer: address the needs of today’s students. This includes reducing the time commitment, cost and in-person requirements; all while increasing the relevancy of today’s curriculum to include a focus on preparing students for a technology-driven, skills-based economy.

Academic institutions must also embrace flexible, self-paced online courses to provide working adults with the skills they want and need to succeed in their chosen careers and beyond. Hybrid, synchronous and asynchronous remote learning are great options that save time and money from commuting while students juggle responsibilities, such as work and family. Students are demonstrating their need for flexibility by steadily gravitating towards online, not-for-profit schools offering hybrid access.

Employers can help by offering access to courses and training aligned to their own workforce needs, with incentives to make them more affordable. Such solutions can be a win-win. They make education more relevant and accessible for workers, while helping employers attract and retain staff in a difficult labour market.

Students are ready for change. Chegg’s recent Global Student Survey found that 78% of US students agree that they would rather their university offered the choice of more online learning if it meant paying lower tuition fees. Compounding this further, 74% of US students said they would prefer shorter degrees if they were cheaper.

US college enrolment
Chegg’s recent Global Student Survey found that 74% of US students said they would prefer shorter degrees if they were cheaper. Image: Global Student Survey 2022

As part of that transition, colleges must adapt by offering relevant courses and providing the education that will position students to succeed in the workforce of the future. In 2016, the World Economic Forum predicted that 65% of children entering primary school that year would be employed in jobs that didn’t exist yet. Many students feel woefully underprepared for that kind of job market – a staggering survey last year found that nearly half of recent American graduates (49%) didn’t apply for entry-level jobs, because they felt underqualified.

The OECD says 31% of working-age Americans possess limited or no digital skills. And, even though Millennials (aged 16-34) spend an average of 35 hours a week on digital media, nearly six in 10 can’t do basic tasks, such as sorting, searching for and emailing data from a spreadsheet. This digital skills gap is constraining the entire sector and adding anxiety to graduates.


Now is an opportune time for higher education institutions to facilitate more access and allow students to choose on-demand, 24/7, affordable, high-quality education that is relevant and accessible anywhere via the device that suits them best.

Educational technology and remote learning are not a panacea — there will always be a place for the in-person pedagogical experience. But we cannot cling to the model of the 18-year-old college student with no other demands on their time. We must work together with higher education to embrace and understand the needs of today’s college students and adapt to reverse the falling US college enrolment numbers.

It’s time for colleges to reimagine and restructure to serve students’ needs. By doing so, they can increase their relevance to the more than 60% of Americans without a bachelor’s degree.

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    May 21, 2024

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