CHICAGO (NewsNation) — Almost one million fewer students are attending college now than there were at the start of the pandemic. 

The data comes from research conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse Center, which states that over the last year, undergraduate enrollment fell by 3.6%, bringing the total undergraduate enrollment down by 6.6% from fall 2019 to fall 2021.

Obvious signs point to the pandemic, as COVID-19’s stay-at-home measures have disrupted the traditional high school to college pipeline, but the novel disease also set off a chain of economic events, including the supply chain crisis and inflation, which have exacerbated the issue, causing money constraints and increasing costs.

Data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, filings confirm these findings. According to data from Department of Education obtained by the National College Attainment Network, FASFA applications are down 9%. Similarly, FAFSA renewals fell by 12%.

Public universities and community colleges experienced the biggest drops, despite institutions welcoming back in-person learning and making a stronger push toward shorter-term credentials and career-driven pathways. 

Bill Debaun researches and writes about college access for the national college attainment network. He sees the decline as a sign of things to come.

“If we see declines in FAFSA applications or renewals, then that, you know, is kind of the canary in the coal mine … about how many students would expect to be on campus in the fall,” Debaun said on NewsNation’s “Rush Hour” on Wednesday.

Brain Taylor is a managing partner of Ivy Coach — a college counseling company. He had a different reaction to the data, praising students on Wednesday’s “Rush Hour” for finally catching on.

“I would argue what took them so long,” Taylor said. “Apologies to the University of Phoenix but is a degree from the University of Phoenix really worth the paper it’s written on?”

Another reason for the decline in college admissions is the pay raise in traditionally low-wage jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that wages and salaries increased 4.2% for the 12 months ended in September 2021, with other employers either vowing or already having surpassed the $15 an hour threshold.

Debaun spoke to this point and suspects the current job market is enticing young people away from academic pathways — the exact opposite of what happened during our last recession.

“When wages are high like they are now and when jobs are abundant, then the cost of forgoing the opportunity to be in the workforce is high for students. Right? And that is especially true for students from low-income backgrounds,” Debaun said.

Taylor argues that much of the trend is a class issue.

“The fact is, a college education at most of the 900 schools across America is still a luxury good and in (a) downturn, a luxury good is the first thing to go,” he said.

According to Taylor, it’s a factor that also speaks to why some colleges are experiencing losses while others are doing well, as the number of college applications being sent out is actually increasing year-over-year — up about 10% each of the last two years and up 150% in the last two decades.

“The difference is that of the 900 universities, there are about 50 highly selective universities. Enrollment is not down at these schools. Applications are surging at these schools, they surged last year and they surged even more this year,” Taylor says.

“So enrollment is down at most schools but among the highly selective schools — the schools that are not luxury goods — enrollment is not down and interest has never been greater. It’s the tale of two colleges.”

This is a challenge for colleges that have to go through more applications and students who are spending money and stretching themselves thin for no reason.

“The post-secondary educational experience can’t exist in a vacuum anymore. We really need to be connecting students to their next best step after college too,” Debaun said.