How is higher education enrollment changing?
This week the invaluable National Student Clearinghouse Research Center published their latest data on American college and university enrollment.
Today I’ll summarize the findings, then point to implications for academia’s future.
tl;dr summary – the pandemic enrollment crisis is over, and now total enrollment has returned to its 2013-2019 level of gradual, albeit uneven decline.
Starting with the big picture, total American post-secondary enrollment dropped by 0.5% from spring 2022 to spring 2023, from 16,963,053 to 16,878,602. (For historical context, spring enrollment stood at 18,154,038 in 2019, 17,944,635 in 2020, and 17,511,906 in 2021.)
Broken down by institutional type, for-profits and community colleges enjoyed an uptick this past semester. Community colleges’ good fortune depends mostly on the rise of dual enrollment (i.e., high school) students. In contrast, public and private four-year institutions saw declines:
Separating out data by degree level, the Clearinghouse assessed that “overall undergraduate enrollment remained stable for the spring term,” dipping down only by 0.2%, or 25,000 students. In contrast, graduate schools saw their student numbers dip down -2.2%, from 3,033,946 in spring 2022 to 2,965,729. This marks a shift away from COVID-era growth. As Doug Shapiro (the Clearinghouse Vice President for Research and Executive Director, Research Center) put it in a call yesterday, the pandemic-era “graduate student wave has passed.”
Slicing the data by demographics, starting with age, the report sees a reversal of the long adult education boom, as what growth the past year experienced came from students under 24 years old. Those under 18 rose by 8.2% and the 18-24 group nudged upwards by a touch (0.3%), while those over 24 declined -3.3%. We can see this in first-year student numbers, which “grew 9.2 percent from spring 2022.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education created a nice visualization of this demographic change:
Shapiro put it this way: “older students continue to disappear from campuses, except for-profits.” Why is the adult population falling? It looks like a mix of losing interest to a booming labor market and a college failure to recapture “stopped out students.”
Switching to race, spring 2023 saw two continued trends. White and black student numbers kept declining, while Asian and Hispanic students rose. NB: this is according to yesterday’s media briefing. I can’t find race broken out in the linked report pdf nor the downloadable spreadsheet.
Turning to gender, the 21st-century trend of female students outpacing males in terms of enrollment might be reversing. In spring 2023 the number of men taking classes nudged upwards, while women’s numbers declined a bit. “Female enrollment declined by 1.2 percent (-118,000 students), while male enrollment grew slightly (+0.4% or +25,000 students).” Women do remain the clear majority of students, numbering 10,023,878 against 7,129,439 men, and also across all institutional types.
The story differs by state. The ones gaining the most students were Maine (5.7%), Kansas (5.4%), New Mexico (4.5%), and Tennessee (3.1%). States losing the most students were Mississippi (6.8%), Washington (5.3%), Missouri (4.3%), West Virginia (3.9%), and North Carolina (3.1%).
What degrees are these students pursuing? The Clearinghouse uses CIP codes, and under that rubric the leading degree family by far is Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support. Following that, with about 2/3rds the numbers, is Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences, followed by Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities. The next highest degree set includes Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Engineering, and Psychology.
In terms of changing numbers, the major growing more rapidly than all others this spring was computer science, which boomed up by more than 11%. In contrast, while a large number of students studied Health Professions and Related Clinical fields, those numbers continued to fall, now below pandemic levels.
What kinds of degrees are students aiming for? Here some previous changes continue to occur. Undergrads are signed up for fewer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, while trying to get more ” sub-baccalaureate credentials.” At the graduate level PhDs are stable, while the big change is “losses in master’s programs (-57,000 students).”
What does this data mean for higher education’s future? What are the strategic implications?
My first takeaway is that the post-2012, post-peak enrollment decline continues, albeit not at the fierce drop we saw during the pandemic. As Liam Knox put it in Inside Higher Ed, “head counts seem to be settling into a slow descent.” Depending on the institution, this has budgetary implications, as most American campuses depend on student fees for the majority of their income.
Further, it means that higher education continues to veer away from its late 20th century mission of increasing academic access. Indeed, Shapiro told me he saw overall enrollment as back to circa 2005 levels, which is bad in this context, and worse when we bear in mind that the nation’s total population has expanded in the past two decades. Total enrollment of 16,878,602 compares poorly to our peak of circa 21 million, down around 20%, or standing at about 80% of where things once reached.
Second, looking ahead to Nathan Grawe’s demographic cliff, I wonder about campuses recruiting traditional-age students at present. Is their goal to get as many teens as possible for the next 3-4 years, until their numbers drop? How will institutions pivot to attract older learners, which they seem to be failing at right now?
Perhaps my reading is too pessimistic and I’m too wedded to my peak higher ed model. Could the long enrollment decline turn around in the upcoming academic year, 2023-2024? It’s possible, simply put, if enough people decide to take American college and university classes. Yet this would be a sea change of attitudes, and a tricky transformation given the pressures continuing to depress enrollment: anxieties about student debt, increasingly hostile politics, increasing public skepticism, and low unemployment. If the economy sours, perhaps we’ll see a return of some adults from a darkening workforce. Otherwise, we have to expect major cultural shifts for enrollment to return to pre-peak levels.
Doug Shapiro offered another view during our conversation about the new publication. He used the word “stabilize,” suggesting that the decade of decline may have ended, and now we experience neither decline nor expansion, but an enrollment plateau. Spring 2023’s decline was, after all, fairly small, especially in comparison to previous years. I can imagine this playing out if enough of the “college for everyone” model survives its breakup, if community colleges continue to win their dual enrollment game, and if campuses continue to attract significant numbers of international students… until we hit the enrollment cliff’s edge.
What do you think? Should this data point to a new growth period, continued declined, or a stable time? Are you experiencing these changes in the higher education world you know?