College enrollment has been declining since 2020, a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

From 2020 to 2022, undergraduate enrollment declined by 1.4 million students. This is a decrease of 9.4%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Not only that, but employers in both the public and private sector are removing degree requirements for many jobs. For example, recently the state of Maryland made headlines when they announced that nearly half of the jobs that used to be degree dependent are now degree optional. Major companies in the private sector have also shifted from degree requirements to skill-based requirements, including Apple and Google. In 2021, Apple required a college degree for 72% of its job postings, down 17% from 2017, and Google required a degree for 77% of job postings, down 18%.

So what does all of this mean for you as you consider applying to college? It depends on your goals. Here are five things to know about the recent decrease in college enrollment and how it might impact you.

1. Even With Lower National Enrollment Numbers, Your Reach School May Still Be A Stretch

So does lower enrollment mean you have an easier path toward your dream school? Not necessarily. “I don’t believe lower enrollment rates translates to it being easier to get into reach schools at all,” says Michelle Siddons, a coach and tutor at Ivy Tutors Network, an education, test prep, and college counseling firm. “Top tier schools are still seeing record numbers of applications, and acceptance rates continue to go down.”

According to the data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, private four-year institutions only saw their enrollment drop by 1.7% in spring 2022, which means you could find yourself on the waitlist of a reach school. Pre-pandemic, high school seniors were already applying to more colleges than ever before, making it challenging for admissions officers to estimate the amount of accepted students who would actually attend. So the longer the waitlist, the more likely the admissions office will hit their enrollment targets.

2. Lower Undergraduate Enrollment May Increase Scholarship Opportunities at Mid-Tier Schools

“Colleges with less than 20% admissions rates won’t need to put effort into recruiting and enrolling students,” says Kate Kaushal, Associate Director of Student Services for My College Planning Team, a Chicago-based college planning firm. This could result in fewer scholarships at highly selective schools, “but there may be money available for other, less-selective schools struggling to fill their freshman class.” You may find that connecting with admissions officers can help you make a case for your application and scholarship opportunities at certain universities.

As more colleges go test-optional and test-blind, admissions officers may be conducting personalized outreach toward high schools, as well as individual students. Students who might have been borderline for admissions for certain schools may benefit from developing a relationship with an admissions officer at those schools. These relationships may also clue you into specific scholarship opportunities that align with your background or your academic or personal goals.

3. Declines in College Enrollment May Mean Tuition is More Expensive

Public universities, whose budgets are partially dependent on enrollment, could face more compressed budgets, which may mean less institutional aid available, notes Siddons. Budget cuts may also raise the price of tuition at less-selective schools, especially as more students may opt for remote or commuter options, rather than living on campus. This may make it even more imperative for you to receive a comprehensive financial aid package for tuition options. Filling out the FAFSA® as well as the CSS Profile® if your school requires it can help make sure that you are eligible for federal student loans as well as any institutional aid. You may also want to keep your eye open for scholarship opportunities.

4. Declines in Undergraduate Enrollment May Change Your Career Opportunities

Even if a college degree isn’t required in a job description, a degree can set your résumé apart from the pack when it comes time to apply for a job, notes Kaushal. “Fewer college graduates coming into the job market mean those with college degrees may have an easier time obtaining higher-paying jobs as the baby boomer generation retires,” she says.

Not only that, but college can be a great time to make professional connections. Networking opportunities among alumni can be a helpful way to find entry-level jobs. Plus, colleges often have robust career development centers that can suggest internships, offer career counseling, and provide introductions across industries.

5. So, Is College Worth It? That Depends On What College Means To You

As college enrollment declines, many high school students may wonder what the value is in an undergraduate degree? The answer: a lot. The financial advantages are substantial. Data collected by the Social Security Administration suggests that men will earn $655,000 more and women will earn $450,000 more in lifetime earnings than people with only high school diplomas.

There are also intrinsic advantages. A 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center found that the majority of college graduates believed their education was “extremely or very” useful when it came to helping them grow personally and intellectually. College graduates also may have advantages beyond financial and professional opportunities: Research suggests the more education you have, the happier you’ll be.

But as the role of college changes, it can be a good idea to dig inward to figure out what college means for you: What do you want to get out of a degree? If you don’t know these answers right now, it might mean that a gap year or community college could be an option until the answer is more clear.

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