Disclosure: MyeLearningWorld is reader-supported. We may receive a commission if you purchase through our links.

Industry Reports

Pandemic College Enrollment Decline Could Lead to $1 Trillion Lost in Lifetime Income for Students Skipping Out

Last Updated:

Photo of author

By Scott Winstead

income lost skipping college

Since the start of the pandemic, college enrollment has been sinking like a rock. In fact, over 1 million fewer students are enrolled in college now than before the pandemic started.

And while college enrollment has been steadily declining over the last decade, the global health crisis has drastically accelerated the trend.

All in all, there has been a 6.6% decline in enrollment since the pandemic hit — a total loss of 1,025,600 potential students.

college enrollment pandemic decline

Whether it’s due to the rising cost of college, Americans choosing to take advantage of rising wages in low-skilled jobs, anxiety about attending school during a pandemic, or something else, the bottom line is there are going to be some serious ramifications to students deciding to skip out on college.

Most notable is the potential economic impact of over 1 million adults declining to go to college. As some experts have already pointed out, this represents a huge potential loss to these students’ future earnings which could have serious economic implications for the whole country.

But what exactly is the total potential economic impact of this pandemic enrollment decline?

We’ve run the numbers, and they’re jaw-dropping.

The total potential loss of lifetime earnings by the over 1 million students skipping out of college right now could exceed $1 trillion.


By The Numbers

How could the loss of 1,025,600 potential students result in over $1 trillion in lost income?

Here’s the breakdown:

graduation rates

  • 63% of students who enroll in college end up getting at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This means that of the 1,025,600 lost students during the pandemic, we could have expected 646,128 to go on to receive at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • Furthermore, of those that earn a bachelor’s degree, US Census data shows that over 27% will go on to get a master’s degree, a little under 6% will earn a doctoral degree, and about 4.5% will get a professional degree (Note: these percentages are rounded for the sake of cleaner presentation, but for the calculations below, we used the full nonrounded numbers for accuracy at this large scale). Based on this information, of the 646,128 who would have earned a bachelor’s had they not skipped out on college during these pandemic times:
    • 398,510 would have gotten just a bachelor’s
    • 179,910 would have gotten a master’s
    • 38,690 would have gotten a doctoral degree
    • 29,018 would have gotten a professional degree
  • Finally, that means the remaining 379,472 “lost students” would have failed to graduate, but would have completed some college before dropping out.

Now that we’ve established reasonable educational outcomes for these students had they attended college, we can need to calculate the potential economic impact of their decision to skip school.

We know that those who earn college degrees earn significantly more on average during their lifetimes than those who only hold a high school diploma.

Here are the latest average lifetime earnings numbers from a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce:

  • High school diploma – $1.6 million
  • Some college, but no degree – $1.9 million ($300,000 more than those w/ a high school diploma only)
  • Bachelor’s degree – $2.8 million ($1.2 million more than those w/ a high school diploma only)
  • Master’s degree – $3.2 million ($1.6 million more than those w/ a high school diploma only)
  • Doctoral degree – $4 million ($2.4 million more than those w/ a high school diploma only)
  • Professional degree – $4.7 million ($3.1 million more than those w/ a high school diploma only)

With these numbers in hand, we can calculate the potential loss to these “lost students” future earnings:

income lost skipping college

  • Those who would have earned a bachelor’s degree only: $478,212,000,000 (398,510 students x $1.2 million less in lifetime earnings per student)
  • Those who would have earned a master’s: $287,856,000,000 (179,910 students x $1.6 million less in lifetime earnings per student)
  • Those who would have earned a doctoral degree: $92,856,000,000 (38,690 students x $2.4 million less in lifetime earnings per student)
  • Those who would have earned a professional degree: $89,955,800,000 (29,018 students x $3.1 million less in lifetime earnings per student) 
  • Those who would have done “some college”: $113,841,600,000 (379,472 x $300,000 less in lifetime earnings per student)

Total potential lost lifetime earnings among the 1,025,600 lost students: $1,062,721,400,000


Economic Impact That Will Be Felt Far And Wide

With over $1 trillion in potential lost earnings, the shockwaves of the college enrollment crisis during the pandemic are sure to be felt throughout the entire US economy in the coming years.

While some of these potential students might be trading away their education for low-skilled job opportunities available right now, the problem is they’re likely to get stuck around the wages they’re making now for many years to come.

Simply put, workers earning higher wages benefits the economy, particularly on a local level.

As  Tony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce told NPR when over a million potential students are lost and get on the path to earning less in the future, “The direct loss to the economy is the workers themselves. If they were trained and ready, they would get higher-wage jobs and they would add more to GDP, making us all richer and increasing taxes, reducing welfare costs, crime costs, on and on.”

Declining enrollment will also likely lead to skill gaps, making it harder for businesses to find qualified workers, which could result in many businesses being forced to shutter.


Can Colleges Reverse the Trend?

All of this is just scratching the surface of the immense economic ramifications of dwindling college enrollment that will permeate many levels, but the point is clear — colleges need to figure out a way to stop the bleeding and win back students.

As we recently reported, the cost of going to college has risen at nearly 5 times the rate of inflation over the last 50 years, giving many students major pause about paying exorbitant tuition fees.

College Inflation Chart

The last two years have left many Americans financially devastated, and those most economically vulnerable simply can’t afford to go to college anymore. And even if they can access financial aid, they wonder if it’s worth it. Many young adults are even opting to get career training on online learning sites like Coursera and Skillshare at a fraction of the cost of college (but without the prestigious degree).

There’s a lot that universities will need to do if they want to reverse the worrisome trend of declining enrollment, but the single biggest thing that would help is making college more affordable so young adults aren’t as tempted to skip school for jobs that pay the bills now but might not in the future.

What do you think colleges can do (if anything) to reverse declining enrollment trends?

Leave a Comment