Elissa Nadworny

Enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities is on track to fall by another nearly 500,000 undergraduate students this fall, continuing the historic drops that began with the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to new data out Tuesday.

The decline of 3.2% in undergraduate enrollment this fall follows a similar drop of 3.4% the previous year, the first fall of the pandemic, according to the research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The Biden administration's program to make community college tuition-free will not become a reality in this round of the president's spending priorities, leaving progressive groups disappointed.

It's common knowledge at this point that the more education you have, the more money you'll make. Studies have shown that, on average, someone with a bachelor's degree will earn more than someone with an associate degree or a yearlong certificate.

But according to new research released on Thursday, there are also a lot of exceptions.

Rental trucks in the parking lots; joyful hugs as students find old friends; a crowd in the campus store as families stock up on Husker gear: It's move-in week at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The center of the action here is the Devaney Center. It's usually home to track and field, but this week it's where students and their families are shuffling in to get their room keys, maps of campus, move-in directions, a mandatory COVID-19 test — and this year — a booth where they can get a vaccine shot.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Undergraduate college enrollment fell again this spring, down nearly 5% from a year ago. That means 727,000 fewer students, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Updated May 27, 2021 at 2:54 PM ET

When someone applies to college, there's often a box or a section on the application that asks about any relatives who attended the university — perhaps a parent or a cousin. This is called "legacy," and for decades it's given U.S. college applicants a leg up in admissions. But no longer in Colorado's public colleges.

Writing a graduation speech is a tricky task. Should you be funny, or sincere? Tell a story — or offer advice? For Yusef Pierce, a graduating senior in California, the job of putting together his public address was a bit more challenging.

"Being inside, I can't really refer to other graduation speeches," Pierce says. He's speaking by phone from inside the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security prison in Norco. "I was just trying to come up with what sounded like a graduation speech."

Democrats in the House and Senate are introducing legislation Tuesday that would make pandemic-related food benefits for college students permanent. The push is being led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.

In Jasmine Williams' family, graduating from the University of Michigan is a rite of passage. Her parents met on the campus, and her older sister graduated from the school a few years ago. She remembers sitting bundled up in the family section for that graduation. "It was overwhelming to feel so many people that proud," she says, "I remember sitting there watching her, and that was probably the first time I was like, 'OK, yeah, I like this. I can't wait to do this.'

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Duke University in North Carolina has announced that it will require students to have a COVID-19 vaccine when they return this fall. And the list of campuses with such policies is growing.

There's a lot that is different this spring on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. It's quieter, since coronavirus safety protocols restrict large gatherings, and the dorm common areas are often empty. But there's one thing that hasn't changed: On most weekdays, you can find Lavonda Little at Reid Hall, a four-story residential building, working as a custodian, a job she's held for the last 16 years.

Hoarse voices reminiscing about last night's wild time; young people in oversized university t-shirts crowding the liquor store; a cabal of high heels waiting for ride shares, with nary a mask in sight.

Pandemic or not, it's spring break in Miami Beach, Fla.

Almost exactly one year ago, the pandemic caused a cascade of school and university closures, sending 9 out of 10 students home as the coronavirus raced through the United States and the rest of the world.

By Labor Day, 62% of U.S. students were still learning virtually, according to the organization Burbio. That number dropped significantly during the fall and rose in the winter as COVID-19 surged. And today, just under 1 in 4 public school students attends a district that still hasn't held a single day of in-person learning.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to end the program today where we began - in Texas. As we've been reporting, residents there are still struggling to cope with the effects of that powerful winter storm that hit the state several days ago. Officials are warning millions of people to boil their water for safety after heavy damage from burst water pipes contaminated the supply. And even though power has been restored to most people who lost it at the height of the storm, many still don't have electricity, including thousands of people in the city of Houston.

At a CNN town hall on Tuesday night, President Biden was asked if he supported the idea of forgiving up to $50,000 of student loan debt for individuals.

His answer: No. He supports cancelling $10,000 in debt, he explained. But he said he is wary of erasing big chunks of loans for people who went to Ivy League schools: "The idea that ... I'm going to forgive the debt, the billions of dollars in debt, for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn ..."

For months, Democrats in Washington have been debating what to do about student loan debt. About 43 million borrowers owe $1.6 trillion in federal student loans.

For many families, paying for college is one of the biggest financial decisions they'll make. College tuition is the highest it's ever been — and the financial aid process is anything but clear. American journalist Ron Lieber's new book, The Price You Pay for College aims to take the black box of college financials and, "turn it lighter and lighter shades of gray."

Last week, Ayiana Davis Polen finally set foot on the campus of Spelman College — a historically Black liberal arts school for women in Atlanta. She's a freshman there but had started her college experience last fall taking classes from her bedroom in Puerto Rico.

Back then, she wasn't sure if it felt like college — but then again, she had nothing to compare it with.

President Biden has called reopening schools a "national emergency" and said he wants to see most K-12 schools in the United States open during his first 100 days in office, which would be between now and April.

Updated Jan. 21 at 3:10 p.m. ET

Following President Biden's executive action signed Wednesday, the Education Department extended pandemic relief for about 41 million federal student loan borrowers through Sept. 30.

"Too many Americans are struggling to pay for basic necessities and to provide for their families," the Education Department said in a statement. "They should not be forced to choose between paying their student loans and putting food on the table."

Kamala Harris has been sworn in as vice president of the United States, becoming the first woman, first Black person and first Asian American to hold the office. She is also the first graduate of a historically Black college and the first member of a Black sorority to do so.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor administered the oath. Sotomayor, the first woman of color to serve on the Supreme Court, previously administered the vice presidential oath to Biden in 2013.

In lieu of the crowds of spectators that fill the National Mall for a typical inauguration, this year the iconic stretch of land will be filled with nearly 200,000 flags, representing the thousands of people who cannot attend because of the coronavirus pandemic and tight security in the nation's capital.

Updated at 5:03 p.m. ET

The College Board announced on Tuesday that it will discontinue the optional essay component of the SAT and that it will no longer offer subject tests in U.S. history, languages and math, among other topics. The organization, which administers the college entrance exam in addition to several other tests, including Advanced Placement exams, will instead focus efforts on a new digital version of the SAT.

Last spring, the pandemic stole Maddie Harvey's job on campus in the Dean of Students office. She was finishing up her senior year at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and without the income from her job, she wasn't going to have enough money to pay her upcoming tuition bill.

"It was definitely a very vulnerable situation that I was in," says Harvey, "it's not easy to talk about when you're struggling, especially knowing that so many people were struggling at one time."

In a speech praising educators, President-elect Joe Biden announced Miguel Cardona was a "real easy" choice to be the next secretary of education.

On Wednesday, Biden reiterated his focus on getting schools open amid the pandemic and touted Cardona's experience this fall balancing online and in-person learning in Connecticut, and getting students connected and outfitted with a device for learning. "That's the vision, resolve and initiative, that's all gonna help us contain this pandemic and reopen our schools safely," Biden said.

Updated at 7:43 p.m. ET

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Miguel Cardona, the head of Connecticut's public schools, to be his secretary of education.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Biden called Cardona a "lifelong champion of public education."

Cardona makes true on an early Biden promise to pick an education secretary who was a teacher: "A teacher. Promise," Biden told the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, back in July 2019.

U.S. lawmakers have announced an agreement on a handful of higher education measures that would provide meaningful help to marginalized students, students of color and many of the schools that serve them. The aid is part of a broad new set of legislation, meant to fund the federal government through fiscal year 2021. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the proposed changes this week.

All throughout high school, Brian Williams planned to go to college. But as the pandemic eroded the final moments of his senior year, the Stafford, Texas, student began to second-guess that plan.

"I'm terrible at online school," Williams says. He was barely interested in logging on for his final weeks of high school; being online for his first semester at Houston Community College felt unbearable.

"I know what works best for me, and doing stuff on the computer doesn't really stimulate me in the same way an actual class would."

Pages