The impact of the pandemic on the business world, our way of life and the economy is certainly widespread. We probably will not know the total impact of this time in our history for years, if not decades, to come. Education, both at the K-12 and higher education levels, had to deal with a much different culture this year so far, and it appears that this shift will continue for at least the rest of the year. Instruction looks different, schedules for students at all levels of education have been altered and so many of our customs (school events, activities, etc.) have either been modified or canceled for the year. One impact of the COVID-19 virus on the education world, however, is just now being realized. While the challenges for the education world have been different for K-12 and higher education, the impact of a decrease in enrollment has hit both areas equally.
Higher education seems to have taken the hardest hit with a decreased enrollment as a result of the pandemic. Across the nation, enrollment at higher education institutions is down by 3%. That in itself doesn’t seem very alarming but when you consider that, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment for first time students is down 16% at four-year institutions and 22% in community colleges, the decrease seems to indicate that the amount of college completers four years from now will be much lower than normal. When you couple this decrease with the predication that high school completers will start to decline drastically in the year 2025 due to a decrease in population across our country, it’s obvious that higher education and the future workforce will have significant challenges. A particular challenge that could be dangerous for Mississippi is the probable impact this will have on our statewide teacher shortage, which is already impacting virtually every district in the state.
Thankfully for the Pine Belt area, this current decrease in enrollment that is felt nationally did not impact our two universities. One of our four-year institutions set a record enrollment for the fall of 2020 and the other had the largest enrollment since 2014. That is encouraging, not only for WCU and USM, but for the overall economy of our area.
The decline of enrollment for K-12 has hit the state of Mississippi hard. According to recent information released from the Mississippi Department of Education, enrollment in Mississippi public schools dropped more than 23,000 students for an overall enrollment of 442,627. The population of our state has been declining since 2015, but we only lost 8,000 residents in the last two years. Given that fact, the loss of 23,000 students in our schools can’t be attributed solely to the decrease of population in our state but has to be related to the current situation of the pandemic. The hardest hit area of enrollment in our schools comes at the kindergarten age with a drop of 4,345 students statewide. According to that same report, it appears that most of the students who did not return to public schools this year opted for homeschooling as that population increased from 18,758 to 25,489. Some of our local school districts reported similar trends in their enrollment with one district losing over 100 students and another 350. Most of these losses also came from kindergarten, which mirrors the data from the state as a whole.
A looming question will be “is this a one-year problem or a trend for the future?” I doubt anyone can answer that. What I can say for sure is that even if schools can all go back to “normal” next year, it will be several years before education at all levels can overcome the loss of instruction and other deficits caused by the pandemic of 2020. But, on a positive note, after being in the field of education for 35 years, I can easily say that the teachers I have encountered at all levels have to be the most resilient and tenacious group of people on this earth! If anyone can lead our children to overcome the impact of this year, it will be them.
Dr. Ben Burnett of Hattiesburg is executive vice president and dean of the School of Education at William Carey University. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.