Suffolk County

Fewer college students returning to Massachusetts

BOSTON — Every year hundreds of thousands of college students head back to school here in Massachusetts.

It’s an annual migration that infuses the region with energy and is a catalyst for the regional economy.

Massachusetts is known around the world for its colleges and universities. More than 100 of them call the state home.

A troubling trend is emerging, however. The number of students is declining and that’s changing the landscape for higher education.

For years, college was an automatic next step for many students, but that’s changing.

One student on the campus of Boston University cited what it costs to attend the school. “I think for BU it’s about $80,000. I feel like there are professions out there that don’t require a college degree that still pay well.”

Another woman added, “It’s hard to think about getting a house, or getting a car, or anything like that when you owe so much money to the school.”

Thoughts like that are driving many students away from a college campus, according to Doug Shapiro of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“We’ve lost about 1.4 million undergraduate students since the start of the pandemic in spring of 2020. And we’ve never seen a decline, anything like that, in the U.S.”

Shapiro says coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped higher education. “It’s actually gotten worse in the last half of this academic year, when I think most people had expected things to be returning to normal by now like they have in other parts of the U.S economy.”

The numbers tell the story of what’s happening in Massachusetts.

According to the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 76.2% of high school graduates from the class of 2015-2016 went on to attend some type of college.

By 2020-2021 that number fell to 62.7%.

“I think it’s just about the money,” said one man at BU. “If they don’t have the means for tuition.”

The impact is being felt primarily by smaller schools that tend to be less selective.

Last year, Becker College in Worcester abruptly shut its doors. Pine Manor College in Brookline was taken over by Boston College. Mount Ida College in Newton is now a satellite campus for UMass-Amherst.

“I think there’s some risk that we could see some more closures,” said Gregg Cohen, president and founder of Campus Bound, a Newton company that advises college applicants.

Cohen says fewer students applying overall won’t make it any easier getting into many top schools, however.

“The selective schools are becoming more and more competitive with schools like Tufts, Brown, and Boston College all having record numbers of applications. So, their acceptance rates are going down actually,” explained Cohen. “It’s much harder than it used to be to predict, especially with the SAT’s becoming optional at many places.”

While that’s going to create more angst at high schools this fall, there are other serious implications associated with this trend.

Fewer students not only hurts the regional economy today because higher education employs so many workers, but it also casts a shadow over the future as well.

“I think the potential risk to the future of our economy is great,” said Shapiro. “There’s no question that more and more jobs in the long term, in the future, are going to require more education and more training. Not less.”

Cohen added, “This has been a cliff that the schools have been thinking about for a long time. I think this trend is a continuing trend. I think it’s not going to stop.”

For this year’s high school seniors, Cohen says it’s more important than ever to develop what he calls a balanced list of schools, what used to be referred to as safety schools.

He’s found that in recent years, more and more students are not getting into places they thought would be a slam dunk and are disappointed with the alternatives they have left on the table.

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