Spring enrollment data: a surprise upward curve

Greetings from the road.  This post is a bit sketchy, as I’ve been riding Amtrak for nearly 10 hours through multiple delays and seriously spotty internet access.

Amtrak window seat on Carolinian train

Some nice views, though.

Let me pose one of my standard questions. How is American higher education enrollment changing?

This week we have new enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  It contains some unusually good news.  It is, as the report’s lead commented to me, “surprisingly good.” I’ll summarize and reflect on it here.

The key tl;dr finding: after a decade of enrollment decline, spring 2024 numbers actually rose.  They ascended by 2.5% and showed improvement across the board.

1 Summarizing findings

By sector, community colleges experienced the most growth, and owe most of that to dual enrollments (teaching high school students), which grew by 10%; high school students at community colleges accounted for nearly one third of the total post-secondary enrollment rise.  Vocational/technical programs also played a major role.

enrollment 2020-2024 spring _National Student ClearinghouseAll degree types rose. Bachelors’ went up 2.3%.  Associates’ degree jumped 4.5%, which is twice the increase we saw in fall 2023. Certificates increased by 3.5%.  Graduate enrollment rose by 3.0%.

All regions of American higher education enjoyed growth, even the northeast, which has suffered enrollment pressures harder than others.

In terms of fields of study, familiar patterns maintained.  The health professions rose 3.4% in four years institutions and by 4.4% in community colleges.  In the lead for growth: “Computer and Information Sciences logged another year of high growth (+9.9%, +57,000 at four-year institutions).“  In terms of total students, business (which includes marketing and finance) was the biggest population and grew by 3.2% over spring 2023.  In contrast, education shrank by the smallest amount, 0.1%.

In demographic terms, women and men both increased, and the ratio of roughly 60%-40% continued.  The Clearinghouse didn’t have race breakdowns this time, but did identify that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) enrollment grew by 3.5%, all in the undergrad population.

2 Reflecting

Why does this matter?  One professor told me enrollment only counts for bean counters, so I should quickly explain. The overwhelming majority of American colleges and universities depend primarily on student revenue for their budgets.  Tuition, room and board, plus fees keep the doors open, generally.  Shrinking enrollment is a problem, obviously and simply; expanding classes, on the other hand, are financial good news.

So what does the new data portent? Clearly this is a big break in a long-running trend of enrollment decline.  We saw the first glimmer of an upward direction finallt in fall 2023, but this week’s numbers are higher still.

What caused this reversal?  I asked director Shapiro to speculate about the reasons for spring 2024’s growth.  After demurring that his focus was on providing data, he thought we could find some changes in student attitudes, which seemed more focused on economic ROI (return on investment), shorter terms of study (hence the health of associates’ and certificates), plus attention to career focused programs.  If this is right, it’s an important explanation, as it describes only parts of higher ed being healthy, at least in terms of student numbers.

Just to hammer that point home: the engine behind overall enrollment growth is community colleges, the most marginal, least resourced swathe of higher education.  They’re the ones which get by far the least media attention.

The relative success of short term credentials: perhaps we’ll see four-year institutions do more on this score, pushing for additional certificates and microcredentials.

Now, is this the start of another longer term rise, like the long boom which started in the 1980s?  Should we expect the next few years to see enrollment build up, before the demographic cliff smacks into us?  I’m skeptical, starting from the FAFSA debacle, which looks likely to depress classes to some degree. I’d add the general demographic pattern, low unemployment (for now). and the darkening cultural attitude towards colleges and universities, which I’ve written and spoken about.

One element I haven’t seen much discussion on is international students.  American academia has relied on this population for decades.  Canada’s decision to seriously cut international students, combined with Australia considering same and Britain not doing well on this front suggests an opening for United States campuses. Unless Trump returns.

I am curious how state governments will react.  How many legislators will hold back funding, being able to claim their public universities are economically healthier?

One more point: enrollment is still before pre-COVID numbers, and far below the peak of 2012-2013.  It’s going to take a *lot* of enrollment growth to return to peak, millions of students for year upon year.  I think that’s unlikely.  We’re still in my peak higher ed model, at least for some years.

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2 Responses to Spring enrollment data: a surprise upward curve

  1. Glen McGhee says:

    Enrollment is only the tip of the iceberg.
    There is so much more going on that focusing on enrollment numbers is a big mistake.

    Will those enrolled actually complete their programs? Headwinds against retention are huge, and increasing.
    A recent Barron’s Op-Ed on “Covid’s Hit to Education Is Still Hanging Over the Economy” by Alix Guerrier on April 12, 2024 identifies several features of the current cohort that put them at especial risk.

    1. Recent data confirms that Covid-19 set student progress in math and reading back by decades.
    Most students from that cohort are still behind their 2019 counterparts and likely will be for years to come.
    2. Students who already faced challenges are falling even further behind. Existing gaps in test scores based on student race, ethnicity, and economic background are widening in Covid’s wake.
    3. Students in the Covid-era cohort are losing talented teachers, many of whom are burning out and leaving the field. [New teachers have an abysmally short tenure.]
    4. Mental health issues are growing, with more than 40% of students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the CDC’s latest ….
    5. Chronic absenteeism worsened during the pandemic, which can lead to falling grades and test scores and make students more likely to drop out. [Absenteeism is on the rise, but students cannot learn if they are not in class.]
    6. Worse yet, COVID funds provided as part of the American Rescue Plan 2021 are ending in Sept 2024. “The cuts will affect every school district and community”.

    In addition, youth find themselves caught in the middle of a major culture shift from oral-print culture to a post-print culture which renders pre-post-print curricula irrelevant.
    Socialization operates dialectically, not only transitioning youth into adult responsibilities in an existing institutional order, but driving changes to the status quo. It is a two-way street.
    But the question is, for schools, does accommodating the incoming initiates means (pardon the phrase) dumbing down? It probably does.
    Look at the rapid diffusion of AI “cheating” and the schools’ defenselessness against it.

    Hitting enrollment numbers is the least of our worries. Addressing COVID learning loss — in the context of digitalization and AI — means that maintaining education quality standards will not be possible. But whether this matters — or not — in the long run is another discussion.

  2. sibyledu says:

    There has been so little good news on enrollment lately, and this is good news. We are still below the pre-pandemic level of 16.6 million undergrads, but this is a welcome step in a positive direction.

    But no, this isn’t the beginning of another boom. The booms of the 1970s and 1980s happened because of the emergence of new populations: women, students aged 25-45, low-income students. We don’t have any other underserved populations to reach. And the affordability problem continues to grow, and this may or may not become a more urgent policy issue.

    Otherwise, I don’t think we are ever going to get back to the 2010 enrollment peak of 18 million undergrads. Long-term fundamentals were already pointing down, and funding was becoming more challenging. My expectation is that we will level off around 14 million undergrads by 2030. That is well below the peak. On the other hand, it is higher than any year in the 20th century. So there should be a way forward, although getting there is likely to be painful.

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