Did the decade-long enrollment decline turn around?

Greetings from February, which somehow occurred just as I was getting adjusted to December.  Over the past month I’ve been frantically teaching, traveling (US, Qatar), pitching a new book idea, managing the Future Trends Forum into autumn, arranging professional engagements through summer, caring for my wife… and while I’ve started a dozen blog posts here, I haven’t published them.  It’s time to get back into the bloghouse and posting seriously again.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoLet me begin with some important higher education data. The National Student Clearinghouse just issued the latest update on enrollments and I’d like to dig into it.

The big takeaway: for the first time in more than a decade enrollment didn’t decline.  It actually ticked up by 1.1% in fall 2023.

Let’s look at some details.

Undergraduate enrollment actually rose overall by 1.2% and across all institutional sectors, albeit unevenly.  Community colleges and for-profits saw the largest rises (2.6 and 3.8% respectively) while public and private 4-year institutions enjoyed a 0.6% increase.

enrollment undergrad 2019-2023 by sector_Clearinghouse 2024 Jan

Zoom in for details, as there’s a lot going on in this graph. “PAB” = Primarily Associate Degree Granting Baccalaureate Institution

Graduate school enrollment also rose by .6%, low enough to drag down the overall number.

Demographics: in terms of race, black, Latino, Asian populations enrolled in higher numbers, while white and Native American student numbers went down.  In terms of age there was some (0.8%) growth among teenagers, which seemed to be driven mostly by dual enrollments with high schools.

Geographically the south, midwest, and west saw increases.  The northeast differed by dipping down 0.4%.

The Clearinghouse also identified which courses of study enrolled how many students.  STEM fields and business led the pack, with computer science growing by 9.5% in four-year programs and more than 13% for graduate degrees.  Some allied health programs declined while others rose.

Some takeaways:

  • Community colleges and for-profits are the big winners here.  The Obama-Biden pressure on the latter group didn’t yield results this year, at least in terms of enrollment.  Quite the opposite. And dual enrollment (getting high school students into college classes) is the main reason community colleges pulled out of a long decline.  Dual enrollment seems to be a major driver for this overall enrollment change.
  • STEM and business majors continue to grow. That’s not a surprise, but constitutes a useful datapoint.
  • Some have said this reverses the pandemic decline, but that’s short-sighted.  The enrollment drop began in 2012.
  • For me, I’m intensely curious to see what this means for the past decade of enrollment decline. Does the new data mean that the shrinkage has ended, or is this a blip before classes dwindle again? Will the next years bring a growing population and a partial recovery of the academic population?  This Forbes piece celebrates the new enrollment numbers as “great news…. outstanding news.” That’s one view, upon which we could build a model. How long would it take for student numbers to build back up to 2012?  Remember that we’re deep in a hole – as Nathan Greenfield quotes Doug Shapiro, “there are still over a million empty seats on campuses today that were filled five years ago.”
  • Or do we see numbers return to the post-peak pattern of decline once more?  Demographics suggest yes.  Rising skepticism about higher education agrees, partially in response to as yet unreformed student debt. For-profits could suffer a collapse again, as they did starting with the Obama administration. My hunch is that if we see enrollment rise by 1+% each year we’ll still have an overbuilt ecosystem of colleges and universities for at least a couple of decades.

That’s all for now.  What do you make of this important data?


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14 Responses to Did the decade-long enrollment decline turn around?

  1. Deborah R Penner says:

    In my state and at my small college graduate and dual credit highschool courses have grown but we have discounted the high school dual credit to lower than area community colleges, primarily as a service to the local community and as a recruitment tool. These are the courses I have kept being hired for into retirement. I believe it’s a blip, looking at declining population growth in the Midwest.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you, Deborah, for your story. What do you think draws high school students to the community college offerings?

      Midwestern demographics are pretty clear now.

  2. Karen Bellnier says:

    Hmmm… it seems possible (likely) that the increase seen in for-profits and less ‘traditional’ schools reflects the increased desire for online learning. I would be interested in seeing whether its just ‘marketing’/awareness or some perceived lack in the wide amount of online learning available from 4-year institutions – is there a perception that forprofits do online “better” in some specific way?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good point, Karen. I’ll have to break the data down a bit, and look for (say) states with megaonline universities, such as New Hampshire.

      For profits do spectacular marketing – and their outperform their main competition on this score, community colleges.

  3. Brian: Nicely balanced piece.

    I’ll offer that enrollment tracking is, at best, an indirect method of measuring the financial health of higher education. I use the last 8 years of IPEDS tuition and fees data for private colleges – and operating revenue for public colleges as a better tracking device.

    Enrollment does not keep the lights on or make payroll. It is the tuition revenue from enrollment that does so. The endemic tuition discounting we are witnessing is impacting the tuition revenue. I cite last year’s closing of Iowa Wesleyan University. Their enrollment grew about 300 student from 2014-2021. Their tuition and fee revenue was effectively flat (up about $100K over 8 reported years). Their unfunded institutional grants (aka tuition discounts) Increased over $5M in the same time period. They gave away the store to get students in the door. (That rhymes :))

    Since I track at the individual college level, I don’t give much thought to the macro study of higher education’s financial health. The focal point should be the changes at each college.

    What do you think?


  4. Whoops, I spelled your first name incorrectly.

    My apologies.

  5. Ted says:

    At the community college where I teach, we’ve leaned heavily into dual enrollment and it has slowed declines in enrollment, but we’re already seeing the consequences in post-high school enrollment. I think some of what we’ve done is just inter-temporal substitution (“tomorrow’s student…today”). We have a high dual enrollment population in English 101, but they’re being offset by further declines in English 101 enrollment among high school graduates. We’re getting students earlier, but we don’t seem to be getting more of them, so in the long run, at best it seems to be a wash.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Oh, that’s interesting, Ted. The high school students get their CC credits and then move on?

      • sibyledu says:

        That’s largely true in my state, where the majority of dual-enrollment students enroll at four-year colleges. A lot of them go out of state, which is consistent with the idea that dual enrollment is a way for advanced high school students to maximize their advantages.

        A minority of students do “stick” at the community college level, but I suspect that these are the students who are most in need of high-touch support. (My state’s higher education agency hasn’t done the research, though I keep suggesting…)

  6. I’m reminded of the saying that “one data point is not a trend”. Besides, you make a lot of sense by pointing out that demographics and cultural changes are both against a recovery.

  7. At the community college where I instruct, we have extensively embraced dual enrollment, which has mitigated declines in overall enrollment. However, we are beginning to observe repercussions in post-high school enrollment. I believe some of our strategies involve merely shifting enrollment over time (“tomorrow’s student… today”). While our dual enrollment figures for English 101 are substantial, they are counteracted by a continued decrease in English 101 enrollment among high school graduates. Although we are engaging students at an earlier stage, it appears that we are not necessarily attracting a larger number of them. Consequently, in the long run, the impact seems, at best, to be neutral.

  8. sibyledu says:

    I don’t think these annual ups and downs are all that important to futurecasting. The number of undergraduates in 2022, as bad as it was, was still higher than any year prior to 2006. That’s no reason to be glum. The main reason that we fret about these numbers is because our economic models are predicated on constant growth: growth of wages, growth of support services, growth of facilities, growth of tuition and fees, growth of appropriations. That was appropriate for the 60s and 70s and 80s, and somewhat for the 00s, but not today. If we were better stewards of our current resources this wouldn’t occasion so much handwringing.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      It’s true, sibyledu, that a main reason for worrying about these enrollment numbers is the business model of higher ed. I keep saying that, but it’s true. We are not good stewards.

      There’s another reason, though: our goal of increasing post-secondary experience. We’re falling behind there.

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