American higher education enrollment declines again, continuing a nearly decade-long trend

The number of students enrolled in American higher education declined again, according to National Student Clearinghouse data.  When I say “again” that refers to the fact that total enrollment has dropped for eight years, semester by semester.  (I’ve been tracking this for a long, long time.)

Total enrollment slid below 18 million for the first time in years, down to 17,965,287, a -1.3% downward tick since fall 2018.  It’s not a dramatic drop, but a steady one.

To put that in perspective, let me offer a quick list of total enrollments by fall terms, using Clearinghouse numbers:

2011: 20,139,348

2012: 19,791,149

2013: 19,511,518 

2014: 19,258,730

2015: 18,929,736

2016: 18,663,617

2017: 18,463,677

2018: 18,196,846

2019: 17,965,287

That’s nearly a decade of sustained decline.   We should be able to think of this as a trend.  And it’s almost an 11% drop.  As study lead Doug Shapiro put it, “That’s a lot of students that we’re losing.”

There are several ways to slice this year’s data, starting with institutional type.  The decline for fall 2019 was across the board, hitting all sectors of higher ed:

enrollment 2015-2019_Clearinghouse

Click to reach the report directly.

In fall 2019, overall postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.3 percent from the previous fall. All institutions experienced enrollment declines, with the largest drop in the private for-profit four-year sector (-2.1%), followed by the public two-year and four-year sectors (-1.4% and -1.2%, respectively) and the private nonprofit four-year sector (-0.6%). Public sector enrollment (two-year and four-year combined) declined by 1.3 percent (174,518 students) this fall.

For-profits continue to collapse, despite the DeVos Department of Education’s efforts (which says something).  Community colleges keep dropping, as unemployment remains historically very, very low.

Four-year public and private colleges and universities also saw enrollment declines:

enrollment 2015-2019, four year public and private

Public 4-years on the left, private 4-years on the right. Green columns = fall 2019.

Notice a quiet but key point about institutional size.  The smaller the school, the more likely they were to shrink:

enrollment 2017-2019_by size

Bigger is better, at least when it comes to campus scale and enrollment.

Demographic data confirmed at least one well known trend, more women than men attending post-secondary classes.  My back of the envelope math says 59% of students are now women:

enrollment 2017-2019_by gender

Student age is counterintuitive, at least against the trend of more adult learners.  Those adults are leading the way out of the classroom door:

enrollment 2017=2019_by age

Geographical variation was interesting.  Alaska was the outlier, losing more than 10% (!) of their student numbers.  On the flip side, Utah kept growing, lifting their numbers by 4.9%.*

Top states with largest enrollment declines by number of students:

Florida (-52,328), New York (-19,386), California (-19,272), Missouri (-14,869) and Pennsylvania (-14,799)

Top states with largest enrollment decreases by percentage change:

Alaska (-10.6%), Florida (-5.3%), Arkansas (-4.9%), Missouri (-4.4%), Vermont (-4.4%), and Wyoming (-4.4%)

What’s causing the decline?

There are many factors, all of which are familiar to my readers: rising anxiety about student loans; the historically low unemployment rate, which encourages some to try their luck in the labor market; demographics.  Also potentially in play: the availability of free or cheap learning online; growing dissatisfaction with higher ed.  Will any of these forces change direction in the near or medium term future?

What can we deduce from this?

Again and again I say this: unless a campus is extraordinarily rich (the 1% of academia’s 1%), they are likely to be dependent on tuition to keep alive.  Downward pressure on enrollment squeezes some campuses, driving them to increasingly radical steps to survive.

Also again: this is not a trend uniformly applied.  Some colleges and universities are being hit harder, while others are doing fine.  You can see from the way I summarized data slices above that there is plenty of variation.  What I’m talking about here is not about a given institution, but the American post-secondary sector as a whole, at the macro level.

In fall 2013 I raised the idea that we had just passed peak higher education. In 2014 I elaborated it for Inside Higher Ed.  The concept is now chapter 7 of my new book.  I am in no way pleased that this forecast has been borne out thus far.

*Heard in Utah: “We seem to be the only state in the US that remembers to make children.”

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in enrollment, trends. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to American higher education enrollment declines again, continuing a nearly decade-long trend

  1. Ken Soto says:

    Ugh – that comment from Utah is a cheap shot. Most young people I talk to these days are not optimistic about their future, whether it’s climate, career/earning prospects, and of course bearing the burden of the cost of education which previous generations did not bear to the same degree. Yes, higher ed is overbuilt, but imagine what would happen to tuition in an environment where demand and supply are balanced – even higher prices.

    So I don’t think anyone’s forgotten how to make children. It’s just that the society we’ve created is inhospitable to making them, and young people have noticed and are adjusting accordingly.

  2. Keil Dumsch says:

    This is a catastrophe over a century in the making. Too many colleges were built, starting in the 19th century. I grew up in a stretch of rural Michigan that had two massive state universities. This makes no sense in any sane universe. Colleges got too big and lavish, and they benefited from a huge artificial demand from government policy and from the colleges being granted the job credential monopoly.

    Now all this is collapsing. In addition to Bryan’s point, Nathan Grawe wrote a book about how the declining college-age demographic will doom colleges. Higher ed is completely unaffordable for most people to begin with, and the economy is lousy. Online schooling, bootcamps, alternative credentialing, a migration to the trades, etc. will combine to gnaw away at enrollments. Eventually even the high-endowment colleges with currently robust enrollments will feel the effects, as students recognize the opportunity costs of staying in school while others are obtaining high-paying careers with bootcamps, employer-provided training, and online schooling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *