KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Too cool for school, or is something else happening?

Undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022 across the United States, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The steepest slide on record with at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Celeste Carruthers from the University of Tennessee says those at the Boyd Center are also tracking this trend.

“There is a lot of uncertainty around the ‘Why’ of this question, it’s a very big question in public policy and in academic circles,” said Carruthers.

Carruthers explained some of this started before the pandemic, a time when she said college enrollment was dipping as the economy was expanding and unemployment rates were falling. She said even then employers were competing with universities for top talent, saying the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated many of the issues colleges were facing before 2020, especially two-year community colleges.

“Community colleges were capacity constrained in how many seats they could offer basically because of social distancing rules and other kinds of protections that we were making against the pandemic in fall 2020 and that may have limited enrollment on the supply side of things,” she said.

Carruthers also said many students were averse to the work environment during the pandemic, a time filled with hybrid learning and increased child care needs.

“It’s just been very difficult to fit college into the puzzle of child care, college, work, and everything else that people have to do,” she said.

“Nationwide, college enrollments are down about one million relative to the year before the pandemic,” she said, adding that the slide is starting to soften according to most recent enrollment data. “In fact, first-time freshman enrollment year-over-year increased nationwide in fall of 2022.”

While enrollment may be struggling nationwide, many in Rocky Top know that is certainly not the case at the University of Tennessee.

“The University of Tennessee is really bucking these trends right now of declining enrollment and admitting larger and larger classes,” said Carruthers.

According to recent data from UT, it was reported that total enrollment across the UT system grew almost 4% in recent years with undergrad enrollment increasing by nearly 5%.

Carruthers explained there are a couple of factors at play for Big Orange.

First, she reiterated the steepest declines in college enrollments were not at four-year universities, but instead at two-year community colleges or other post-secondary education institutions.

Second, she said the influx of people moving to the volunteer state and Knoxville is playing a role in growing enrollment.

“More people are moving to Tennessee than are moving away and the University of Tennessee is one beneficiary of that immigration pattern,” she said.

While she sympathizes with those making tough decisions, she added that in the end getting a degree is still worth it.

“The trade-off is that that better pay can be a short-term gain, long-term loss, especially for young people,” she said. “People with a college education tend to have more access to promotions, and raises, and different jobs, and higher level jobs that require a college education.”