Higher education enrollment declined again: US Census

The total number of people enrolled in American higher education declined by 2013, according to data from the United States Census Bureau.  That marks two years in a row when fewer students attended US colleges and universities, a decline of nearly one million people.

Let’s break this down into details and implications.

  1. Enrollment declined even as the American population increased.  So the decline as a proportion of the United States is actually a bit steeper than it sounds.
  2. The traditional four-year undergraduate numbers are actually positive, just barely (1%).  It’s grad schools and especially community colleges that are shrinking:higher education enrollment, 2006-2013
  3. This decline is historically significant, being “larger than any college enrollment drop before the recent recession”.
  4. Demographics: the decline hits all ages.  “Enrollment of students 21 and younger fell by 261,000; the enrollment of students older than 25 fell by 247,000, not statistically different”.
  5. Demographics: whites still constitute a majority of college students, although not by much: “At the college level, 58.2 percent of students were non-Hispanic white. Hispanics comprised 16.5 percent, blacks 14.7 percent and Asians 8.1 percent.”
  6. The decline also comes after a pretty sharp increase:

“The drop-off in total college enrollment the last two years follows a period of expansion: between 2006 and 2011, college enrollment grew by 3.2 million,” said Kurt Bauman, chief of the Census Bureau’s Education and Social Stratification Branch. “This level of growth exceeded the total enrollment increase of the previous 10 years combined (2.0 million from 1996 to 2006).”


How much of this decline is a response to anxiety about student debt?

How much is due to the growth in private sector jobs? i.e., people leaving school for work.

To what extent does this decline explain recent campus mergers and cuts to faculty and staff?

What would it take to reverse this decline?

This Census report is, sadly, more fodder for my peak higher education hypothesis.  The detail about recent enrollment rising sharply before the drop is especially salient.

(thanks to Shel Sax and Steven Kaye for reflections)

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