The total number of students enrolled in American colleges and universities declined in fall 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
I should say: declined again, because as my readers know, higher education enrollment has been sliding down without a break since 2013.
Let’s break the report down by key trends. And I apologize for catching this story a few weeks after the publication appeared.
According to the NSCRC the total number of students taking classes in US postsecondary institutions was 19,010,459. That’s down -1.4% from fall 2015’s 19,280,473, while that was down -1.7% from 2014’s 19,619,773. Corrected for duplication (students enrolled in multiple institutions) last fall’s numbers shrink a little further, down to 18,663,617.
By sector: enrollment especially declined in community colleges and for-profits. Four year private colleges and universities saw a slight drop. Four year public institutions alone saw growth, and that was very small:
The decline was all in undergraduate schools. Grad programs, numerically much smaller, actually grew a little, reaching 2,712,693, a 1.5% rise from 2015’s 2,672,738.
Gender: women continue to outnumber men, 10,867,311 to 8,143,148.
Academic programs: the leading majors for undergrads at four-year campuses were Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Liberal Arts and Sciences; General Studies and Humanities, (includes undeclared); Health Professions and Related Programs; Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Engineering. Community colleges are similar, but with some differences in ranking and selection: Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities, (includes undeclared); Health Professions and Related Programs ; Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support; Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services; Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services.
What does this mean for higher education?
- For-profits are continuing to collapse. It’s not clear where those students are going, but other sectors don’t seem to be attracting them.
- Tuition-dependent institutions – i.e., just about everybody – are seeing their market shrink. We should therefore expect increased competition and more resistance to collaboration. Increased raiding of other countries for students is also likely.
- Watch those majors carefully. That’s where resources are likeliest to flow. Queen sacrifices should resume.
- Will campuses spend more on instruction or on support staff? It depends on which they see as more effective in winning students from this ever-dwindling pool.
- Will state and federal politicians interpret this half-decade decline as a sign that higher ed is less powerful politically? Is the drop also ammunition for eroding or changing up federal support, while continuing to cut state funding?