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Where are all the undergrads? College student population in SF drops by $10B, new data shows

Few members of San Francisco State Faculty and student body wander campus on Jan 26, 2022. | Camille Cohen | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

New numbers confirm what many higher education specialists have long suspected: that college and university enrollment would be hard-hit by the pandemic. 

In San Francisco, the prediction rings especially true. 

From 2019 to 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey (ACS), college undergraduate enrollment in SF fell by 21%, while graduate or professional school enrollment dropped by a more modest 8%. Undergraduate enrollment in 2021 barely topped 41,000 students, while 2019 saw enrollment numbers pass 51,000, according to ACS data. 

The American Community Survey offers a one-year snapshot of a wide range of topics, including grade school as well as college and university enrollment estimates. The Census Bureau released 2021 ACS data earlier this week

Declining higher education enrollment is not just an SF problem. 

The total number of college undergraduates dropped 5% nationwide, as more than 900,000 of them left school between 2019 and 2021. Graduate students, though a smaller overall population, fared a bit worse, dropping 6% in national enrollment during the pandemic. 

San Francisco’s decline in undergraduate and postgraduate students mirrors overall downward enrollment trends across age groups and grade levels: the ACS reported a total drop of more than 17,000 enrolled students above 3 years old in San Francisco. 

A person walks down a sidewalk toward a large glass-fronted building.
A student at San Francisco State University walks through campus on Jan 26, 2022. | Camille Cohen | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

These Census numbers reinforce previous data reports that initially showed a nationwide decline in college students, spurred on by the pandemic. 

The National Student Clearinghouse reported in May that 685,000 fewer postsecondary students enrolled in undergraduate programs in 2022 than in 2021, amounting to a 4.1% overall decline. Undergraduate students overwhelmingly accounted for dropping numbers: undergrad enrollment declined by 4.7% in that same time period, a loss of 662,000 students. 

Experts say public schools and community colleges experienced the worst overall change in enrollment throughout the pandemic—a problem that might worsen, even as pandemic restrictions and challenges ease up. 

San Francisco State University (SFSU), the city’s flagship public higher education institution, saw its enrollment numbers slip after 2019, and they have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

In fall 2019, SFSU reported a total of 28,880 undergraduate and graduate students. By 2021, that number had dropped to 26,620, representing a 7.8% decrease. 

SFSU showed consistent enrollment numbers from 2010 to 2019, never dipping below 29,000 students in a given year. 

Recent estimates for fall 2022 put the university at 24,461 students, an 8% decrease from last year. 

Other SF colleges and universities also experienced enrollment declines, with the City College of San Francisco reporting the most dramatic drop. 

City College lost nearly 10,000 students between 2017 and 2021, and during the pandemic the school saw a 28% enrollment decline—double the losses seen at community colleges nationwide.  

The decline in college students perhaps reflects nationwide shifts in how Americans view the value of a higher education. Even though San Franciscans rank low in their share of student loan debt—at least compared to the rest of the nation—many see college as an expensive and time-consuming pursuit. 

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