n this file photo from Aug. 25, 2020, students Jessica DeSena, right, and Camden Coggburn, left, both from Columbus, sit outside Thompson Library during the first day of fall classes at Ohio State.
( Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File
Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega and we've got one more story for you today. Enrollment in undergraduate colleges in the United States has been on a steady decline for nearly a decade and since the pandemic, even fewer students are enrolling. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates that enrollment numbers at undergraduate schools were down about 2.5% this fall and that's nearly double last year's enrollment decline.
To make up for decreasing student bodies, a number of liberal arts schools around the country are looking to smaller non-degree technical programs. Claudia Cabrera is a 24 year old mother of two and she's one of the students enrolled in a new advanced manufacturing certificate program at Stonehill College, a four year liberal arts school outside of Boston.
Claudia: I had my GED for about a year and I didn't really know where I wanted to go with my career, my education. I felt like I wasn't going to be able to go back to school, because I was a young mom.
Tanzina: Claudia is just one of an increasing number of students saying these programs have provided them with an education they didn't think was attainable before. Kirk Carapezza runs the higher education desk for our partner station GBH and has been reporting on this story and he joins me now. Kirk, welcome back.
Kirk Carapezza: Hey, Tanzina. Good to be here.
Tanzina: Why has enrollment in four year liberal arts schools been on the decline.
Kirk: Since COVID hit-- enrollment is down across the board, but even before the pandemic, the number of new high school graduates here in New England and really in the Midwest was plummeting. The number of new high school graduates in New England is now expected to continue to shrink through 2037. That drop in enrollment really spells problems for small non-selective public and private colleges like Stonehill, and really for our region's high skills economy.
Tanzina: Some of these schools are turning to technical programs like what?
Kirk: Right. We mentioned Claudia at the top there with the advanced manufacturing course, but Massachusetts and other New England states are facing a major shortage of workers and technicians. Economists say that these liberal arts schools are providing career and technical education in very specific fields, things like photonics, which is the science of putting light technology on really small chips, which is so critical right now, as we're all on zoom and using our devices every day.
They're turning to these courses that really cater to market demands and they can be advanced manufacturing, they can be very niche programs, but they're really, as the number of high school graduates drops, they're aimed at older non-traditional students.
Tanzina: Interesting. Why are they offering these types of programs? Can they make up for some of the enrollment declines, not just the numbers, but also the money?
Kirk: Right. Many, not just community, technical colleges are operating in the red now. A lot of these four-year private schools are also leaving money, so the New England Board of Higher Ed recently estimated that the pandemic has cost the regions colleges here about half a billion dollars in tuition and fees. That estimate doesn't even account for COVID related expenses.
These schools have invested in career and technical certificate programs that cost less and last just a few semesters, and they can really just diversify basically what they offer. Despite the challenges presented by COVID, some labor economists are recommending that all colleges adopt these short term non-degree programs as the traditional college age demographic shrinks.
They say that these schools need to enroll as many learners as they possibly can in order to stay afloat and hopefully expand at some point. These private liberal arts colleges that are non-selective can come up with new offerings that respond to the market demands.
Tanzina: It seems like this is something I've been hearing about for a while. Initially the idea to retrain people, for example, who had worked in traditional manufacturing jobs was very popular probably about a decade ago. It seems like this is something that's not just meant to increase enrollment at the colleges, but also to provide or create a workforce that's more prepared for the future. Is that right?
Kirk: Right. We're both working parents. There's research now that shows that 65% of adults hoping to pursue higher education now prefer non-degree programs and that's compared to 15% who prefer them pre-COVID, and it's just because there's so much going on. This is, you'll hear it from some faculty of liberal arts colleges who see this as too focused on career and technical education, but I really do think this is about the future of work.
You talk to economists and Higher Ed leaders, and they think that these degree or certificate programs can not just retrain the workforce, but preserve our democracy in this moment and help people who might feel left behind, find dignity and work while also encouraging some active, informed citizenship. No matter what their backgrounds are, what color their skin is, this is a way to re-engage people who might feel left behind.
Tanzina: Those are some big lofty goals there, Kirk. Who do we know is taking advantage of these courses right now? What's the profile of the folks that you've talked to? I know you spoke to the mother we heard from the top, Claudia, but other folks who are taking advantage of these courses.
Kirk: Yes. I mean, they're designed for adults, for older students, but they're also encouraging young 18, 20-year-olds to enroll. Claudia's story is interesting. She was accepted into this new advanced manufacturing program at Stonehill, she had her GED, but she felt like she wasn't going anywhere. She didn't know where else she could go as a young mom. She first enrolled, she was actually living in a shelter and she had been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and she tried to isolate herself.
I mean, these people are living on the margins of our society and they're the people who are most effected by this pandemic. Claudia was stuck in the shelter, she was falling behind in her lab work, struggling to keep up with the courses, she missed a lot of school, she almost dropped out, Stonehill stepped in. Some of the administrators at Stonehill told me that they weren't prepared for the needs of these students.
That they, as a school, that traditionally enrolls young people who live in dorms didn't fully understand the needs, but they came together, they provided laptops, they helped her move out of this homeless shelter and into a new apartment. Even her classmates came together, they launched a GoFundMe page. We're living in the era of GoFundMe, where students are coming together and raising money for each other to help them get through these programs.
Now, Claudia tells me she's all cut off on our coursework. She expects to complete her program soon and enter the workforce. COVID has thrown a wrench into a lot of this and the hands on training has been put on hold, but they are managing to move forward with these programs.
Tanzina: Well, let's talk about that because it seems like what's interesting to me, Kirk, is that what you described as the university being used to having students who are paying to live in dorm rooms and largely connected still to their families, non-traditional students have a very different set of needs. It was surprising to these colleges, right?
Kirk: Right. Even that term, even the term non-traditional is misleading because the non-traditional student is the majority now, right? Only 15% of students who go to college in this country have that four-year residential college experience. In many ways, this crisis has forced these schools to rethink their mission and rethink why they're here. It's almost an existential crisis that's been accelerated and Stonehill is not alone.
Anna Maria college here in central Massachusetts told me they're refocusing on the idea of "serving students who serve the community" and they're trying to educate people who want to work in fire and police and nursing. Clarke University, a small liberal arts college in Dubuque, Iowa, this summer introduced a career and technical program and it's basically a series of self-paced online micro courses designed to provide professional development skills to working adults.
Regis College, another small Catholic college just outside Boston, told me they were considering a manufacturing certificate program, then the pandemic hit. I think it's still in the mix and we'll see more schools get into the space.
Tanzina: Kirk Carapezza is a higher education correspondent for our partner, GBH. Kirk, thanks for joining us.
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