▶ Watch Video: Undergraduate enrollment continues to decline at U.S. colleges and universities

Undergraduate college and university enrollment has decreased by nearly 5% from last year for both fall and spring semesters, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

That drop is “larger than anything we have seen in years,” the group’s executive director Doug Shapiro warned on CBSN Monday. 

As high school seniors across the country make their final decisions for college, NSCRC’s research reflects that 4.4% less of them were enrolled at an undergraduate institution for the fall 2020 semester. Spring 2021 enrollment dropped 4.5% compared with the same time last year. 

And community colleges saw the biggest drop, with 11% fewer students starting this spring semester and 10% fewer in the fall. 

“It is really two very different things going on at four-year institutions compared to the community colleges,” Shapiro said. “We have seen declines at community colleges in every age group and every demographic.”

Shapiro attributed the drop in enrollment to the coronavirus pandemic’s upheaval of everyday life. He believes the disparity disproportionally affects low-income students “who typically are served by community colleges.” 

“I think a lot of families were struggling with just paying rent and buying groceries, and the idea of adding on college tuition to that was just too much,” he said. 

And while he believes four-year institutions will see enrollment go up amid easing coronavirus restrictions, Shapiro fears the pandemic may have forced a longer-term enrollment gap for community colleges and the students who depend on them.

“A lot of these schools where last year’s freshmen opted to take gap years rather than have to take courses online and forgo that traditional freshman on-campus experience, I don’t think there is much doubt that those students will be back in school this fall, assuming it is safe to do so,” he said. “But I think at the community colleges, again, it is a very different story.”

“I worry that for the disadvantaged and low income students, the longer they stay out — and a year is a long time to be out of school— the harder it will be for many of them to get back to the classroom and back onto the track of seeing themselves as students.”

Conversely, Shapiro said now may be the best time for people to enroll in postgraduate programs.

“Borrowing rates are at historic lows, so they are lower, opportunity costs are lower. Particularly, students who already have a bachelors degree, they are in a much better position to take advantage of this,” he said.