As colleges around the country resumed in-person learning in the fall of 2021, many educators expected students to return to campus after taking a pandemic gap year. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Ivory Tower: even fewer students showed up than during the worst months of the pandemic in the fall of 2020.

The number of undergraduate students is expected to drop 3.2 percent in the 2021-22 academic year after plunging 3.4 percent during the 2020-21 pandemic year, according to preliminary data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on Oct. 26, 2021. That adds up to 6.5 percent fewer undergraduate students now than there were in the fall of 2019 before the pandemic.

“If this current rate of decline were to hold up, it would be the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Half of the 3,600 colleges and universities that the Clearinghouse tracks have reported their fall enrollment data so far. Additional updates are expected in November and December.

Low-income young adults appear to be fleeing higher education in the highest numbers because colleges and universities that serve this population saw the largest enrollment declines.

“Right now, a lot of young people seem to be going to work instead of going to college,” said Shapiro.

Young adults from low-income families appear to be lured away from school by rising wages and the need to support their families through hard times, Shapiro explained. With nationwide labor shortages, hourly pay for the average worker was up 4.6 percent in September 2021 compared to a year earlier. Restaurants and retailers, from Starbucks to Costco, are boosting starting wages to $15 and more an hour.

Institutions that serve the wealthiest Americans, by contrast, are experiencing the opposite phenomenon: a  post-pandemic bulge in students.

For the first time, the National Student Clearinghouse categorized institutions by how selective they are. The approximately 200 colleges and universities that Barron’s labels “most competitive” and “highly competitive”  were the only institutions with more students in the fall of 2021. Private nonprofit institutions, such as Harvard University, have 4 percent more students enrolled than last year and almost 2 percent more students enrolled since fall of 2019.

Read the full article about students choosing work over college by Jill Barshay at The Hechinger Report.