American higher education enrollment declined. Again.

The total number of students enrolled in American higher education declined this spring, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Here I’ll break down the results, then comment on their significance.

The total number of enrolled students is 17,839,330, a 1.3% drop from the 18,071,004 we taught in spring 2017.  That was, in turn, a 1.5% slip from spring 2016’s total of 18,343,655.

The NSCRC breaks this down by sector, as the decline varies by institutional type:

enrollments to 2018 spring

Enrollments decreased among four-year for-profit institutions (-6.8 percent), two-year public institutions (-2.0 percent), four-year private nonprofit institutions (-0.4 percent), and four-year public institutions (-0.2 percent).

Note that every sector experienced some level of decline.

Another vital way to slice the data is by age.  While one major trend of late has been the growth of nontraditional (i.e., adult) learners, this report shows that population actually declining much more steeply than the traditional-age one.  In NSCRC’s brackets, the 18 to 24 year old population declined 5.4% to 607,977, while the “Over 24” group dropped much further, by 13.3% to 147,020.

Geographical differences are another angle.  Inside Higher Ed offers a handy summary:

Enrollments went down in 34 states this spring…
The 10 states with the largest enrollment declines are: New York (45,608), Michigan (22,571), Florida (17,003), Minnesota (11,262), Missouri (9,962), Ohio (9,623), Pennsylvania (9,596), Colorado (9,049), West Virginia (8,755) and Oregon (7,255)…
Six of the 10 states with the largest declines are in the Midwest or Northeast…

We can also look at enrollment by major.  Here’s the report’s data, broken out by the center’s model of disciplinary clusters (and I’m just picking the biggest ones), listing total enrollment and change from spring 2017:

Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support 1,575,286 -2.15
Health Professions and Related Programs 1,074,613 -1.8%
Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities 1,058,766 1.6%
Biological and Biomedical Sciences 579,302 2.7%
Engineering 568,243 1.6%
Education 449,783 -1.4%
Social Sciences 437,201 -1.9%
Psychology 433,611 -0.7%
Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services 423,315 3.7%

So what can we learn from this?

That is the sixth full year of consistent enrollment declines.  Sit with that for a moment.  The total number of students has gone down – incrementally, yes, per semesters – but without pause for more than a half decade.

Compare: 17,839,330 took classes this spring, while in 2013 we enrolled 19,105,651 students.  That’s about a 6.7% decline.  And it comes after a generation of steady enrollment growth.

Consider how much planning American institutions have done, predicated on those decades of rising numbers.  Think of how many expectations and habits were instilled then, and which are now obsolete.

Recall how dependent American colleges and universities are on revenue from enrollment, especially as only a tiny number can rely on endowments, while the majority of public institutions (themselves a majority within higher ed) have seen state support drop steadily.  If schools enroll fewer students, they suffer a direct financial hit.

Back in 2013 I introduced the idea of peak higher education in the United States.  It was a thought experiment, and it seems to have been born out steadily.  I really didn’t want it to come true. I hate to say “I told you so,” but, well, it looks like I did.

The age angle is vital, and is a good caution for those of us who want higher ed to pay more attention to adult learners.  It looks like a “strengthening” labor market is leading some adults away from post-secondary education and back to work, especially for community colleges and for-profits.  (I put “strengthening” in quotes because while unemployment rates now stand as astonishingly low levels, around the lowest possible according to some economics thinking, I don’t want readers to forget wage stagnation, the shift of the economy from full time jobs to part time gigs, and the growing numbers of people who dropped completely out of the workforce.)

International students: I’m not sure to what extent this recent decline is due to the recent drop in foreign students (for example).  I’d like to see that data broken out.

Variability: please note that this is macro data, a very big picture indeed.  There is plenty of room for variation by region, state, type of institution, and individual campus.  For example, while New York schools lost more than 4%, Utah saw a 6.8% enrollment increase (what’s the story there?).

Last point: are we seeing a slow but steady movement away from the idea that college is for everyone?  Mike Rowe and others have been urging us to celebrate people who work in various trades without college degrees.  One example is this Republican candidate for Florida’s governorship, who openly attacks higher ed as elitist and liberals while praising those work with their hands.  “College is not the only path to success, and it’s okay to say it,” goes his ad:

(Although he wants more vocational training, so…) This decline in enrolled students occurs when the total American population has grown, too.

Now back to plugging it all into the book.

PS: If you want a quick introduction to American higher ed, this report offers a nice sketch.  For example, which sectors teach the most students?  According to NSCRC terminology and numbers, arranged from largest to smallest sector:
Four-Year, Publics: 7,664,873
Two-Year, Public 5,291,752
Four-Year, Private Nonprofit 3,686,972
Four-Year, For-Profit 925,532

Also, here’s which levels of post-secondary education teach the most students, again, in the report’s terms:
undergraduate 15,164,757
associate-seeking 4,955,226
graduate/professional 2,674,573

So public undergrad higher ed is the leader.  It’s the giant if you include 4- and 2-year institutions.

(via Inside Higher Ed)

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4 Responses to American higher education enrollment declined. Again.

  1. Greg says:

    How much of this is a decrease in people attending higher education, and how much of this is a decrease of people of traditional higher education age?

    In Michigan, for example, we are down 15% in high school graduates from the peak of 2007-08. And forecast to lose another 15% (for a total of 30%) by the predicted trough in 2029-30.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That makes a lot of sense for Michigan, Greg. But aren’t we also seeing a growth in older populations, whose higher ed participation is declining even more steeply than the traditional age group.

  2. Matthew Henry says:

    One interesting idea is the drop in for-profit. As we now, lots of pressure to shut for-profit down. Is there a theory that the students that were going to for-profit have decided not to go at all? If so, is this a good thing for America?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Basically, yes. For-profits competed mostly with community colleges, and CC enrollments have also fallen.
      It seems that for-profits educated a chunk of America that the rest of American higher ed has failed to win back.

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