Higher ed enrollments decline. Again.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoThe number of students enrolled in American colleges and universities declined again.  New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has appeared, and shows that the past three years’ decline continues.

Let’s break it down.

The total number of students enrolled in American higher ed this spring is 18,003,354 .  Compared to spring 2015, that’s a slight drop of 1.4%, down from 18,267,143.  In turn 2015 showed a decline of 1.7% from 2014, which taught 18,587,703 students.

This has been doing on since 2013, semester by semester:

enrollment drop 2013-2016 cut 2

Another cut:

enrollment drop 2013-spring 2016

Click to embiggen and actually read the captions.

These charts shows the data broken down by sector, and shows how the for-profit sector is the national leader in hemorrhaging students, losing 9.3% in just one term.  Community colleges are next, seeing a 2.8% drop.  Four-year institutions actually enjoyed increases, if puny ones (0.6 and 0.7, public and private).

There’s an interesting age shift, with adult learners declining more rapidly than traditional-age students.  6,799,845 folks over 24 enrolled, a reduction of 3.4%.  In contrast under-24s numbered 11,543,811, with a tiny drop of 0.1%.  Is adult learning shrinking overall?

There isn’t a meaningful difference by gender.  Women (10,461,923) continue to clearly outnumber men (7,881,732).

What do we make of this?  Obviously the for-profit sector is being hammered.  Meanwhile, the rest of higher ed is shrinking slightly.  Given the long-term nature of this trend, now, approaching four years, I have to wonder if my gloomy peak higher education scenario has had some degree of forecasting success.

Maybe this post is too gloomy, making too much of the data.  After all, a 1.4% change is pretty small.  And the biggest losses are not in what we think of as mainline higher ed, but in the often abusive for-profit sector.  I accept these objections, but consider them limited in application.  Yes, 1.4 is small, but it comes after a series of such small cuts.  Taken together, they could constitute a trend.

What about the for-profits?  Surely we should celebrate their demise, when they are bad actors.  But the rest of higher ed isn’t growing.  And what happens to those for-profit students?  I’m not seeing evidence of their heading to state schools, community colleges, or liberal arts campuses.  If that population entered higher ed during the past generation’s higher ed boom, then left during the bust, that might be peak higher ed’s key piece.

We could also ask: why aren’t non-profit institutions attracting people exiting for-profits?

We can also ask: why aren’t the non-profits growing?  We’re still hearing that everyone needs higher ed, and more of it.  Retraining is important, it’s an information economy, post-secondary education is awesome, etc.  So why aren’t we listening?

(via Inside Higher Ed, who shouldn’t have filed this under Quick Takes)

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6 Responses to Higher ed enrollments decline. Again.

  1. Hi Bryan

    Typo – “We can also ask: any aren’t the non-profits growing? We’re still hearing that everyone needs higher ed, and more of it.” Interesting: with industry and their tool the government clamoring for everyone to get higher ed, why are enrollments down? It seems that the non-profit sector is always looking for the college educated also. In California higher ed budgets are up and enrollment is still declining.

    Peace & Resistance

    Mark Corbett Wilson

    “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” ~ Eric Hoffer

    On Tue, May 24, 2016 at 7:21 AM, Bryan Alexander wrote:

    > Bryan Alexander posted: “The number of students enrolled in American > colleges and universities declined again. New data from the National > Student Clearinghouse Research Center has appeared, and shows that the past > three years’ decline continues. Let’s break it down. The to” >

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  2. Mark Vickers says:

    My guess is that, when they want to acquire new skills rather than new degrees, more adult learners are turning to MOOCs and other online sources rather than, say, community colleges. I know that’s been the case for me, and the growth of MOOCs has been impressive. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-12-28-moocs-in-2015-breaking-down-the-numbers

    The other comment I’d make is that the declines should be correlated against the overall declines in the population of young people. See the Census data in these areas: http://www.census.gov/population/projections/files/natproj/detail/d2011_20.pdf

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  3. I suspect that as adults continue to settle into the post-recession era, the personal drive to reeducate and retrain is dropping. I wonder if there’s an opportunity to cross tabulate and see where the declines are by sector and by age – if the for-profits were overselling the adult education opportunities and the declines in both are correlated.

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  4. Serpliss, Ron says:

    Great article, thanks for sharing. I would be interested in seeing this information in a more segmented approach. One suspicion is that there are some ‘not-for-profit schools’ that are absorbing the loss from the ‘for-profits’, mainly being Southern New Hampshire University and Arizona State University that are playing the for-profit game in a not-for-profit sector. I respect both universities, just saying they have caught on faster than many others.
    Thanks again,
    Ron

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  5. robertmcguire says:

    Hi Bryan,

    I see that the count is of students in degree-granting institutions. I’m curious if the count is of students in degree programs at those institutions. In other words, if my local state university campus has expanded its menu of non-degree certificates, bootcamps and the like, are those students showing up in this enrollment data?

    Meanwhile there is the growing universe of for-profit degree alternatives like General Assembly, IRL and online. I doubt that explains where a majority of those adult learners went, but it must explain some.

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  6. Hi Bryan,
    It turns out non-profits are taking students from for-profits. The last Babson Online report (http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/online-report-card-tracking-online-education-united-states-2015/) makes the trend clear.

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