Higher education enrollment declined in 2017. Again.

The total number of students enrolled in American high education declined in 2017.


I’ve been tracking this trend of steadily, unbroken enrollment decline since 2013.  But before I grimly crow about that, let’s look at the details.

The data (pdf) comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.  They see “overall postsecondary enrollments decreas[ing] 1.5 percent from the previous spring [2016].”  In spring 2017 18,071,004 students took classes on American campuses; compare that with 19,619,773 enrolled back in 2014. That’s a drop of 1,548,769 students, or about 7.9%.  As Inside Higher Ed puts it, “national college enrollments have continued their multiyear decline”.

If we break down “overall” into sectors, we get this:

enrollment 2014-2017

For-profits continue to hemorrhage students.  Community colleges also continue to shed numbers.  Private and public four-year institutions are just on either side of a plateau.

Academic program enrollment data is fascinating, too:

enrollment by program 2016-2017

Business continues to rule enrollment.  Health care and allied health are huge, if ticking down a bit.  I’m not sure what “liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities” means; it does sound like “a lot of undeclared undergraduates plus some interdisciplinary majors”, but I could be wrong.

Two-year campuses show similar patterns:

enrollment by program 2 years

What does all of this mean?

Let me turn to some themes I’ve been attaching to this trend over the past few years.

The for-profit sector is still crashing for various reasons, including the impact of Obama-era regulation and bad press.   They *could* rebound if the Trump administration supports them actively. (For more information about this segment of higher ed, check out our ongoing reading of Cottom’s Lower Ed.)

Here’s a thought.  Why aren’t most for-profit students heading to other higher ed sectors?

Community colleges are continuing to lose students. Many explain this as due to CCs’ countercyclical nature, where they fill up during recessions and shrink during growth.  However, today’s economic “growth” is very weak.

Public (nominally state-supported) colleges and universities are losing students: “Taken as a whole, public sector enrollments (two-year and four-year combined) declined by 0.9 percent this spring.”  This may help explain why per-student support numbers rose last year – there are fewer students per.

Gender balance continues to tilt female, as 10,352,322 women took classes as compared with 7,718,682 men.

Age Adult learners are dropping.  Is this because of for-profits, or…?

Academic programs We should expect resources and political support to continue heading towards business and health care.

State support Will declining number encourage state legislatures to direct more funding to public higher ed?  Or will they interpret the numbers to indicate declining demand, and downgrade monetary support?

Businesses impacted Recall that Pearson lost money, then shed staff, in part because of declining student enrollment.  Are other businesses heading into trouble?

At a strategic level, recall that higher education boomed in student numbers for the past generation.  From the 1980s through 2013, we sent more and more students to college, as we expected the manufacturing economy to transition into a knowledge one, and as the BA/BS became the new high school diploma.  Our economic models were built on this assumption of steady growth.  That’s how we powered expanding amenities, growing programs, and increasing the numbers of staff and faculty. Now that higher ed is, at best, at a steady state, if not shrinking, these business models no longer apply.  What do we do now?

One side effect of this continued development is increased inter-institutional competition.  The same number of colleges and universities are fighting for a shrinking number of students. Collaboration is going to be even harder to support.

What next?


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

8 Responses to Higher education enrollment declined in 2017. Again.

  1. Fabio Nascimbeni says:

    Hi Brian
    Interesting analysis of a shocking data.
    A question: do you know where to find this data for other world regions?

  2. Curious as to total numbers of enrollable students. Has that decreased? In other words how have the numbers changed for all students who could go to higher ed, down or up or level for the years described?

  3. Just spitballing here:
    (1) Don’t forget engineering. That had the second-highest rate of increase at the four year schools, and that absolutely rings true in my experience. Although the data say that “physical sciences” enrollments are dropping, I think the growth in engineering would be a continuing pretext for paying disproportionate attention to the STEM discplines.

    (2) That massive drop in for-profit enrollments might lead to an equally massive ramp-up in online and hybrid courses at traditional universities. The population of nontraditional learners who need the affordances of online/hybrid courses, but who are now gun-shy about for-profits, is still there and universities would be foolish not to try to tap into that.

    Another question- Do these numbers reflect the number of students enrolled in the different disciplines at a single point in time (e.g. When students first matriculate) or is it across the entire student population? Because for example at my university, we get a ton of students who enroll with a declared major in engineering, but who get one or two semesters in and then switch to math or chemistry (or underwater basketweaving, etc.). It seems like student majors are a moving target.

  4. Pingback: How the university enrollment crisis plays out in summer 2017: two stories | Bryan Alexander

  5. Pingback: Peak higher education, 4 years later | Bryan Alexander

  6. Pingback: America's Refuseniks | Radio Free

  7. Pingback: The Case for Inclusive Teaching

  8. Pingback: Public Higher Education: Census of Governments Employment and Payroll Data for 2017 | Saying the Unsaid in New York

Leave a Reply

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