ROCHESTER, MI (WXYZ) — Public universities and colleges continue to see a steady slump in enrollment. Unfortunately, it is expected to get worse as we make our way through 2022.
Michigan's top education officials say the state is producing fewer high school graduates every year which is, in turn, impacting the number of students attending college.
While the enrollment decline has existed for some time experts in higher education say the pandemic has exacerbated the issue.
There's a lot of factors that play into this enrollment decline including the instability of attending any school right now.
The ebb and flow of COVID numbers mean in-person learning can quickly transition to virtual at any given moment and we are seeing that happen all across Michigan.
This coupled with rising tuition expenses is turning a lot of students away from higher education according to admission specialists.
"We had actually just welcomed two of Oakland's largest freshmen classes in history and then the pandemic struck and we have seen some significant declines," director of Undergraduate Admissions at Oakland University Shane Lewis said.
Nationally, the number of 2020 high school graduates who enrolled in college in the fall of 2020 dropped 22 percent from the previous year, Lewis says that's partly due to a decline in low-income and urban student enrollment.
Manuel Vaquera, who is currently attending school at Oakland Community College's Auburn Hills campus says at one point he did consider going directly into the workforce.
"There's no shame in it, you know I was considering it really seriously but it's all about doing what works best for you," said Vaquera, who immigrated here from Mexico in 2017.
Vaquera, who one day dreams of becoming an industrial engineer, says he ultimately decided a high school diploma just wasn't enough.
"In the current world employers keep asking more and more," said Vaquera. "They are asking for experience and for really complicated degrees."
If Vaquera were to finish a four-year degree program, he would be the first in his family to graduate college in the United States.
"if I can go into a country where I didn't even know the language I can certainly do this," said Vaquera.
Vaquera is hoping to save enough money during his stint at community college and eventually transfer to Oakland University.
The 20 year old has already been meeting with OU academic advisors.
"The data doesn't lie that life long earnings for students who earn a bachelor's degree are higher than those who own a high school diploma and so I think we are here to share not only that fact but also what higher education does for an individual," said Lewis.
Lewis says a lot of people may think a drop in college enrollment isn't a big deal, but in reality, he says it will have long-term implications.
"One of the goals of higher education is to better prepare an active and engaged citizenry and so if we are not getting more students to higher education we are not setting ourselves up for future success," said Lewis.
The University of Michigan and Wayne State University have also reported declines in enrollment.
For example, total Fall 2021 UM-Dearborn enrollment is 8,331 students (6,355 undergraduates, 1,976 graduate-level), compared to 8,783 in 2020.
Wayne State says they've been relatively fortunate.
"Our Enrollment Is down 5% from last year, and down a total of 7% in the last two years since the pandemic started," said Matthew Lockwood, a spokesperson for WSU.
"We have a diminishing youth pipeline," said Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities.
"We are one of the top states in the nation in terms of the forecast decline in high school graduates and so we've seen this slow train coming from years now," he added.
Hurley knows the cost of higher education is a huge deterrent for millions of low-income students.
That's why the MASU is working to streamline the transfer process from community colleges to 4-year institutions via the Reconnect program and the Futures for Front liners program
"We have a number of pathways now where students could enter a community college a high enrollment high demand degree program and then transfer automatically," said Hurley.
In some cases, those first two years at the community college would be virtually tuition free.
A four-year degree will be no easy feat for Vaquera but he's already saved some money from summer jobs and applied for several scholarships.
I feel like with enough dedication you can do anything you want---it's all about trying."
There was a proposal sent out to lawmakers back in august by a coalition of local and state leaders.