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 .” 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:
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:
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:
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.