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 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:
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?