American higher education enrollment declined again – *before* the pandemic hit

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoThe number of students enrolled in American colleges and universities declined in spring 2020, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

This enrollment downturn is no mere blip, but part of a long-running and very important trend.  I have been tracking this trend since 2013 when it began to appear in data.  Year by year, semester by semester, total enrollment has ticked down. This most recent NSCRC report compares spring terms against spring terms.  (For some of my previous spring enrollment posts: 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.)

NSCRC estimates that “[o]verall postsecondary enrollments decreased 0.5 percent or 83,803 students from spring 2019… All institution sectors experienced enrollment declines…”  Spring 2020 saw 17,458,306 students, compared to 17,542,109 in spring 2019 and  17,839,330 in spring 2018.*  For contrast, in 2011 enrollment stood at 19,610,826; 2020 is about 89% of that.

The report breaks this down by sector, each of which declined:

enrollment 2016-2020 spring_NSCRC

The public sector enrollments (two- and four-year colleges combined), which enrolled nearly three quarters of all postsecondary students, fell by 1.3 percent (163,964 students), compared to 1.9 percent (244,376 students) reported last year.

…the largest drop [was] in the public two-year sector (-2.3%), followed by the private for-profit four-year and private nonprofit four-year sectors (-1.9% and -0.7%, respectively).

I want to emphasize that all sectors declined, since a common way to dismiss this data is to characterize it as driven by for-profits (which many in non-profit education dismiss or disdain).  None dropped as steeply as for-profits, but all did.

There are several additional findings in the report that I wanted to share.  For example, the gender breakdown of students remains where is has been in recent years, with a clear majority of women (10,228,973 to 7,229,333).  By my count women are about 59% of students, with men down to around 41%.  A reminder: this is a historic and now sustained reversal of previous American higher ed enrollment.

I was also struck by the countervailing trend of increased enrollments in some campuses through dual enrollment programs:

As opposed to the overall declines, dual enrollments grew at an unprecedented rate of 6.9 percent or 46,737 students to 722,843 students. Over 70 percent of dual enrollees were in a public two year institution…

Note the role of community colleges here.  (Alas, most higher ed discourse will ignore them.)

Differences by state are also useful.  The largest enrollment declines came from Alaska (-9.8%), Missouri (-4.9%), Vermont (-4.9%), Montana (-4.3%), and Pennsylvania (-4.0%).  Rare increases for total enrollments within a given state occurred in Arizona (4.3%) and New Hampshire (3.5%), both homes to major online programs, plus Utah (3.2%) and Kentucky (1.9%).

Leading courses of study remain the same as they have been for several years, in the NSCRC framework.  At four-year colleges and universities the top three, with one million + students majoring in each, are: Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support; Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences; Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities.  In a second stratum, with around half a million majors each, are: Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Engineering; Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services; Psychology; Education; Social Sciences.

At two-year campuses the leading major is Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities, followed by Health Professions and Related Clinical Sciences then Business, Management, Marketing.

What does all of this mean?

I don’t want to overstate the report.  Many of these declines are small, in the 0.5-4% range.  I don’t want to leave the impression that this is a shocking new thing.  Instead, it’s another step in a persistent trend.  This is an incremental story, with impacts that can build up.

If enrollment continues to decline – independent of COVID-19 –  we will see gradually increased financial stresses on colleges and universities that depend on tuition and fees – i.e., nearly every single one.

Remember that American higher ed enjoyed a generation of continuous enrollment growth, circa 1982-2012.  Many, many habits, plans, strategies, and expectations grew from that.  Those can be painful to revise or break.

I’d also like to note the possibility that America might revise its cultural agreement on the idea that everyone needs more post-secondary schooling.   Enrollment continuing to ratchet down could cause a rethink.  I am waiting for this to pop up in national or state election campaigns, especially during the fall.

How does COVID-19 enter into this?  Basically, the pandemic could exacerbate the enrollment decline trend at a macro level, with some variability depending on institution.  As I and others have said, it seems likely that the pandemic will further depress total enrollment for fall 2020.

Now, fears of this can drive colleges and universities to take bold measures.  Hence the fervent calls to “re-open” campuses, even without reasonable chances of controlling infections.  At the most fundamental, at worst it means administrators disagreeing with Tressie McMillan Cottom’s observation:

Because enrollment pressures, driven either by this long-term trend or the short-term pandemic, do present some institutions with existential possibilities.

What are you seeing in your institution, or in your area?  Friends from beyond the United States, what do you make of this?

*NSCRC says this data is pre-COVID and campuses migrating online: “this edition of the Current Term Enrollment Estimates should be viewed as a pre-shutdown, start-of-term baseline that does not reflect any effects of the pandemic on enrollments.”

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11 Responses to American higher education enrollment declined again – *before* the pandemic hit

  1. Keil Dumsch says:

    I live about a mile from the University of Washington here in Seattle, and it will take an absolute hammering because of its dependence on international students, particularly Chinese students.

    “I’d also like to note the possibility that America might revise its cultural agreement on the idea that everyone needs more post-secondary schooling. Enrollment continuing to ratchet down could cause a rethink. I am waiting for this to pop up in national or state election campaigns, especially during the fall.”

    We’ll definitely see this. It was already headed that direction pre-virus, with both parties calling for valuing the trades more highly, and encouraging bootcamps or apprenticeships instead of college.

  2. Ken Steele says:

    Here in Canada, enrolments overall have been steady, thanks to increasing participation rates in most parts of the country, and what has been very successful recruitment of international students from India and China in particular. Canada has never had the sort of volume in for-profit colleges that you have in America, and of course our tuition fees are a fraction of yours. (I suspect affordability has helped to insulate Canadian higher ed from the disillusionment and skepticism driving some declines in the US.)

    Our 4-year institutions have about 65% female undergraduate enrolment – but it is our 2-year sector that is markedly different from yours. Significantly more of our population has a community college or polytechnic diploma (what you might call an associate degree) – 26% which seems to be more than double the US and almost 4x the OECD average. (It helps that 2 years of post-secondary is free in Quebec as part of the CEGEP system, which combines high school.)

    What we DO see in Canada is a substantial mismatch in geographic supply and demand: surging youth in our major cities and smaller institutions in rural and northern towns struggling to maintain critical mass. International recruitment temporarily backfilled this, but COVID-19 will set that back considerably this fall. Many remote institutions will struggle with plateauing and falling enrolment in the years to come.

  3. Elizabeth Ebersole says:

    Here is something about WA State: Also, there have been reports that University of Washington will reopen in the Fall.

  4. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Unfortunately, the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the US Department of Education) still holds to the delusion that enrollment will rise over the next decade. An unbelievable projection given nearly a decade of enrollment losses and a 2026 enrollment cliff.

    • Keil Dumsch says:

      Exactly right. I don’t know what numbers they are looking at. Maybe if you only look at very short-term projections, since we are still at the tail end of the everyone-to-college system and lots of people still go, would you see enrollment increases.

      But this is not seeing the forest for the trees. Even pre-pandemic you had declining demographics, questioning of the costs, migration to the trades, bootcamps, and other factors that threaten enrollment.

  5. Bookkooks says:

    What a wonderful article. Thank you very much. Stay safe and healthy!

  6. Glen S McGhee says:

    Larry Cuban is tracking openings in other countries using actual photos.

  7. Glen S McGhee says:

    It’s schools that are dying, not institutions — at least, not yet. When it gets to that, we need to be rethinking societal relations across the broad.
    “It is better for institutions to die than for people to die and it is unconscionable that anyone in a position of authority should suggest otherwise.”

    I thought Figure One was very misleading — no Y-axis! None!
    So, here’s my prediction — for every drop in percentage, just ADD A COUPLE OF ZEROES.
    That means, for example,

    • Keil Dumsch says:

      Glen, this is why trying to bail out schools and artificially keep them open post-virus when they are doomed anyway is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to get as many people into lifeboats as possible. That means salvaging as many jobs as possible for everyone dependent for their livelihood on brick-and-mortar schools. This will mergers, contractions, closures and a relief fund for anyone who loses their job as colleges close.

      • Glen S McGhee says:

        I absolutely love the “lifeboats” analogy.
        I anticipate widespread closings, and the cry “Man the lifeboats!!!” will be met with astonishment because there ARE NO LIFEBOATS. There is no exit strategy, there is no plan. None.
        Just the entire sector sliding off the Covid-cliff. We’re back to Bryan’s avalanche catastrophe.

        • Keil Dumsch says:

          You’re right, there are no contingencies in place to handle this. It’s a catastrophe in the making.

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