American higher ed enrollment declines, again

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoThe total number of students enrolled in American colleges and universities declined in fall 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

I should say: declined again, because as my readers know, higher education enrollment has been sliding down without a break since 2013.

Let’s break the report down by key trends.  And I apologize for catching this story a few weeks after the publication appeared.

According to the NSCRC the total number of students taking classes in US postsecondary institutions was 19,010,459.  That’s down -1.4% from fall 2015’s 19,280,473, while that was down -1.7% from 2014’s 19,619,773.  Corrected for duplication (students enrolled in multiple institutions) last fall’s numbers shrink a little further, down to 18,663,617.

Enrollments from 2013-2016

By sector: enrollment especially declined in community colleges and for-profits.  Four year private colleges and universities saw a slight drop.  Four year public institutions alone saw growth, and that was very small:

enrollments by sector

The decline was all in undergraduate schools.  Grad programs, numerically much smaller, actually grew a little, reaching 2,712,693, a 1.

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5% rise from 2015’s 2,672,738.

Gender: women continue to outnumber men, 10,867,311 to 8,143,148.

Academic programs: the leading majors for undergrads at four-year campuses were Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Liberal Arts and Sciences; General Studies and Humanities, (includes undeclared); Health Professions and Related Programs; Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Engineering.  Community colleges are similar, but with some differences in ranking and selection: Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities, (includes undeclared); Health Professions and Related Programs ; Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support; Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services; Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services.

What does this mean for higher education?

  1. For-profits are continuing to collapse.  It’s not clear where those students are going, but other sectors don’t seem to be attracting them.
  2. Tuition-dependent institutions – i.
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    e., just about everybody – are seeing their market shrink.  We should therefore expect increased competition and more resistance to collaboration.  Increased raiding of other countries for students is also likely.

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  3. Watch those majors carefully.  That’s where resources are likeliest to flow.  Queen sacrifices should resume.
  4. Will campuses spend more on instruction or on support staff?  It depends on which they see as more effective in winning students from this ever-dwindling pool.
  5. Will state and federal politicians interpret this half-decade decline as a sign that higher ed  is less powerful politically?  Is the drop also ammunition for eroding or changing up federal support, while continuing to cut state funding?
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10 Responses to American higher ed enrollment declines, again

  1. Brian – does this not follow previous economic trends where unemployment goes down and for-profit education institution (and some non-profit) enrollment numbers go down? (and the flip side when unemployment goes up). Did this happen in the late 1990s, in the mid 2000s, and in the late 1980s? Seems that for-profits are elastic more so than non-profits suggesting their audience are folks who are looking for employment opportunities more-so than education advancement?

    • John Sener says:

      I agree that a longer-term view is useful. One of the maddening things about asking your question is that long-term stats to the present are not easy to find. According to this chart (, there was indeed a dip in US higher ed enrollments in 1976, in the mid-80s, and again in the mid-90s. So this raises the question of whether the current downturn is simply a down stage in another cycle. According to the linked chart as well as this source (, we have not reached “peak enrollment;” instead, enrollments with rise again as the cycle continues (a baby-boomlet-let cycle?).

      At the same time, it’s worth noting that the linked chart (which includes real data through 2014) predicted an upturn in enrollments in 2015 and 2016 which did in fact not happen. The downturn is happening for a longer period of time than in previous cycles. Another key factor is that decline in for-profit enrollments, and to a lesser extent community college enrollments, are clearly driving the downward trend. What happens to the for-profit sector in a likely business-friendly and regulation-unfriendly new presidential administration? After 80 consecutive months of job growth, does community college enrollment rise again if/when job creation declines, as it historically has?

      All in all, I still don’t see compelling evidence that the decline in US higher ed enrollments in permanent rather than structurally cyclical, with the caveat that this cycle has been distorted considerably by the rise of the for-profits…

      • Thank you both for weighing in.

        Yes, there’s definitely some cyclical forces at work here. As you say, Chris, the unemployment rate has dropped since 2008, and both CCs and for-profits have more elasticity. And we do have historical precedents, as John accurately points out.

        However, there are strange things at play.
        1) The for-profits *boomed* like never before (at least not post-WWII), growing into an enormous chunk of higher ed.
        2) The anxiety about student debt, like the amount of debt itself, has never been anywhere near this high. Remember that financializing higher ed is a historically recent development.
        3) While the unemployment rate is low, the quality of new jobs is awful: low paying and at least 94% temporary. (cf among others) If higher ed is good at reskilling people, people should have been bouncing back to us in higher numbers than they currently are. We’re not seeing workers in the growing gig economy streaming into CCs and for-profits.
        4) John points out that the predicted enrollment upswing never happened.
        5) We enroll more international students than ever before. If those numbers were back at (say) 1980s levels, the total enrollment drop would be even worse.
        6) Labor force participation is down from 20th century levels.
        7) Disability levels are high.

        So what’s happening? Is the new shape of higher ed scaring people away? Are we seeing a growing number of people choosing neither work nor college?

  2. bowneps says:

    If enrollment, hence job openings for faculty, continues to decrease, why on earth are we allowing the number of graduate students to increase? Are we trying to destroy our own profession?

    • As far as I can tell?
      The desire is to keep the labor supply flooded. TAs, lab assistants, research assistants, adjuncts, and term hires keep the rest afloat.
      Those defending the grad number flood, like the MLA, often enough, claim that they are sending people to alt-ac jobs. Which is true to some extent, but really begs the question.
      I’m having a hard time seeing this as anything other than shameful exploitation.

  3. I think there’s something wrong with this section:

    “By sector: enrollment especially declined in community colleges and for-profits. Four year publics saw a slight drop. Four year public institutions alone saw growth, and that was very small:”

    Four year publics are mentioned twice, both increasing and decreasing. I *think* the first one should be “four year privates”

    Love, your editor.

  4. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Whither #highered numbers — and with them, our profession? @BryanAlexander on patterns — plus thoughtful discussion

  5. Pingback: America’s demographic currents flowed on schedule in 2016 | Bryan Alexander

  6. Pingback: Feds: College enrollment to grow 15% by 2025. LOL! - edu blogs

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