American college and university enrollment declines again – for the 8th year in a row

The total number of students enrolled in American higher education declined this spring, according to new NSCRC data.  For the eighth year in a row.

This is vital data for the nation’s education sector.

Let’s break down the details.

Here’s the difference between this past spring’s classes and 2018’s: “In spring 2019, overall postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.7 percent from the previous spring”.  A slight tick down.

The public sector has been hit a bit harder than privates: “Taken as a whole, public sector enrollment (2-year and 4-year combined) declined by 1.9 percent this spring.”

Community colleges and especially for-profits continue to suffer.  Public four-year campuses also lost some students, while, in contrast, the private, nonprofit sector looks like the only bright spot:
enrollment 2015-2019…except for this: “Enrollments increased 3.2 percent at four-year private nonprofit institutions, but this increase was largely due to the recent conversion of a large for-profit institution to nonprofit status.”  Oh.  I’m not sure what the increase was left after that’s accounted for.  Derek Newton thinks that without that conversion (which he ascribes to Grand Canyon University) “enrollments at private nonprofit schools is flat.”

These declines concern undergraduate programs.  In contrast, graduate programs are still a bright spot when it comes to enrollment, showing solid growth across the board:

spring 2019 enrollment details

Gender: the “feminization” of higher ed continues, as per this data.  7,361,832 people identifying as men were enrolled in spring 2019, a decline of -2.8% compared to 2018’s spring term.  In contrast, 10,180,277 students registered as women attended, and their year-by-year decline was less: -0.8%.  By my math women constitute 58% of higher education enrollment, with men taking up just 42% of classes (Voice of America concurs).  That balance occurred across all sectors.

Demographics: we may be seeing early signs of the youth population dropping in this report.  The 18-to-24 student body declined -2.4%, while the over-24s only went down -0.8%.

Geography: there is some interesting regional variation. Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Hawaii, and Kansas all lost more than 4% since spring 2018.  North Dakota lost 4.5%, which is odd, since they’ve been enjoying some positive youth population growth.  In contrast, only a few states enjoyed a rise above 3%: Colorado, Georgia, and Utah.  Weirdly, New Hampshire experienced a 9.9% rise; I suspect that’s entirely due to online enrollment in SNHU.

Scale: according to Forbes’ take on the report, small institutions are not doing well.  Instead, “[a]mong private nonprofit colleges, the enrollment increase was accounted for entirely by larger schools – those with 10,000 or more students.”

If we look at this as a longterm trend, we taught 17,542,109 students in spring of this year. Based on that datum, I estimate an 8.18% decline since 2013, when American post-secondary education enrolled 19,105,651 .

Some reflections:

  • The for-profit sector continues to collapse.  Every year for nearly a decade it’s taken hard hits.  Even under a pro-for-profit Department of Ed, this sector is losing badly.  But notice that the students that leave for-profits aren’t heading elsewhere, generally.  They’re just exiting post-secondary education.  Despite some people jubilating over the fall of predatory schools, or the dismissal that for-profit isn’t really higher ed, this is not a story with a good ending so far if we think all Americans should get some college.
  • Community colleges continue to see enrollment declines.  That’s because they are traditionally counter-cyclical to employment.  Some will dismiss the CC shrinkage as unimportant, despite it being the largest sector in American higher ed, the one doing the most with the least, and the one receiving less media attention than any others. I commend readers to Susan Muaddi Darraj’s recent column calling for us to pay greater respect to community colleges.
  • As this continues, expect greater pressure on high schools to increase graduation numbers.  Also, for colleges and universities to work on retention and graduation.
  • Administrations may cite this data as they contemplate cuts, queen sacrifices, mergers, and closures.  “We are suffering from the general, national trend of enrollment decline…”
  • How many campuses will consider a pivot away from undergraduate and towards graduate programs?
  • Some will speak of this in terms of bubbles or higher ed being overbuilt.  US News and World Report concludes that higher ed now has “too many slots compared to the number of applicants.”
  • We might see people argue that this data indicates that tuition and debt are actually just fine.  Back to Derek Newton:

we can further dispel the popular notion that factors such as student debt and climbing tuition prices are impacting consumer/enrollment choices. Clearly, they are not. What’s happening instead is that enrollment at the least expensive option in higher education, and by a ton, the public community colleges, is down. At the same time, enrollment is flat or slightly up at the most expensive quality options – the prestigious private and nonprofit liberal arts schools.

  • We can also expect conservatives to cite this enrollment data as proof that higher ed is flawed.

In 2013 I came up with the peak higher education scenario.  The Wall Street Journal echoed that language this week, stating that “overall numbers have been falling since peak enrollment during the early 2010s…”  I really don’t want this scenario of mine to prove accurate.

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5 Responses to American college and university enrollment declines again – for the 8th year in a row

  1. Unfortunately NCES is always 2 years behind the curve and unwilling to change their projection models.

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