American higher education enrollment declined in 2020: US Census

(First of two posts)

The number of students taking classes in American colleges and universities dropped last year, according to recently release US Census data.  This is an important bit of news, given how crucial enrollment is for tuition-dependent campuses – i.e., most of them.

Higher ed wasn’t the main focus of the Census update, so let me extract the relevant bits for this post.

First, what happened to total enrollment?  By 2020 the Census found “[c]ollege enrollment fell to the lowest level since 2007.”

Check out their graphic, showing enrollment since the 1940s by age and gender:

enrollment 1947-2020_US Census

The peak I identified around 2012 is clearly visible, both on its own terms and in the broader historical context.

You can also see men dropping below women in every age group. In fact, the release adds this graphic which truly clarifies the point over time:

enrollment 1959-2020 by gender Census

Men outnumbered women from the 1960s and through the 1980s.  The crossover occurred in the early 1990s and was locked in from 2000 on, with women clearly outnumbering men in classes.

Second, which institutional sectors were hit the hardest? “Most of the decline took place in two-year colleges, which had their lowest enrollment levels in 20 years.”

You can see that very clearly in this graphic, plotting enrollment in institutional types from 1970-2020:

enrollment by institutional type 1970-2020_US Census

That 2012 peak is clear for community colleges.  4-year colleges and universities lag a bit, yet also decline starting around 2017.

How did undergrad and grad school numbers compare? The former sank while the latter did not, according to the CB: “Enrollment in graduate school held steady. Graduate school enrollment in 2020 was 3.8 million, not statistically different from 2019.”

What is the latest racial data the Census has for enrolled students? “Among college students in 2020, 53% were non-Hispanic White, 20% were Hispanic, 15% were Black, and 10% were Asian.”  That maps not too badly onto general demographics.

What do we make of this?  We should be cautious, given the many issues around the 2020 data collection – i.e., Trump and pandemic. Also, I’d love to see the data sliced into more ways, like separating out for-profits or plotting it all by geography. But we can draw some conclusions, or at least built hypotheses:

  • Community colleges continue to be clobbered.  This doesn’t get a lot of media play, nor a lot of talk within higher ed, but is a huge development.
  • The data confirms my peak higher education model, with total enrollment sliding down from 2012 on.
  • If America is still serious about expanding higher education access, we are right now in the middle of a bad failure.

Stay tuned for tomorrow, when I follow up with another publication on enrollment with much more detail.

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