American higher education enrollment declines again. For the 6th year.

The number of people enrolled in American higher education declined in fall 2017.

That numbers has declined steadily for the past six years.

My readers, viewers, listeners, and clients know that I’ve been talking about this as a major trend for our time.  Weirdly, it’s not a popular topic across a good deal of higher ed, either because it’s too abstract or too depressing.  It has little public traction.  But presidents and boards know all about it.

The key thing here is that American higher ed enrollment grew steadily from around 1980 through circa 2012.  Contemporary colleges and universities have largely built themselves on that old trendline.  Which has now paused and receded.

Let’s look at it a little more closely.

The data comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.   Note that the decline occurred across all sectors of American post-secondary education:

Enrollments from fall 2014 to 2017.

For-profits, community colleges, state universities, private colleges all lost students.  For-profits continue to shed numbers, but others experienced declines, if to smaller degrees.  For example, “[t]aken as a whole, public sector enrollment (2-year and 4-year combined) declined by 0.8 percent this fall.”

In the fall of 2015 American institutions taught 19,280,473 students.  By fall 2016 that number dropped slightly to19,010,459.  Fall 2017?  18,811,280.  These aren’t large drops, not on a semester by semester basis.

Men declined by twice as much as women (1.5% versus 0.7%), continuing their status as a scholastic minority (8,024,010 compared to 10,787,270).

Adult learners dropped more than did traditional-age undergrads (3.4% against 0.6%).  That’s 6,432,309 “nontraditionals” as opposed to 11,393,085 classics.

Undergraduate enrollment suffered more than grad enrollment, as the latter actually grew a bit.  As Inside Higher Ed summarizes,

The 1 percent decline this fall was due to undergraduate enrollments, which fell by nearly 224,000 students, or 1.4 percent. Graduate and professional programs were up by 24,000 students…

Why is this happening?  The reasons are diverse, and might include anxieties about student debt, which are widespread.  The labor market reaching something close to full employment (not including low workforce participation) (also not including the popularity of precarious and gig jobs) usually encourages fewer people back to college.

What does this mean for you, dear reader?  If you work in an educational institution, it means that budget stresses are likely to continue.  That’s because the current American model of higher education finance is based largely on students paying and/or going into debt to pay increasing tuition bills (as opposed to relying on state support or generous endowments); fewer tuition-payers means a given institution’s revenue is hit, which means they have to take steps.  Hence cuts, queen sacrifices, and the pressure for new revenue sources.

As IHE puts it (linked above), “Enrollment pressure is a primary driver of the small but growing number of college closures and mergers that are occurring around the country, experts have said.”

Will this downward trend continue?  It’s hard to say, although it’s becoming a long-term trend now. As The Hechinger Report observes,

This means there are more than 2.6 million fewer students enrolled in higher education in the semester just coming to an end than there were in the fall of 2011, the most recent peak.

The Hechinger Report worries further, noting that “the drop in the number of first-time students is speeding up. There were 63,000 fewer first-time students in higher education…”

My peak higher education vision was in 2014.  I wrote it in part so that people could debunk it.  Reality has had, so far, other plans.


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2 Responses to American higher education enrollment declines again. For the 6th year.

  1. Tatiana Goodwin says:

    Do we have any good idea of how this compares to the relative proportion of typical college-age adults in the general population per year? Easy enough to see a decline in people going back to school as fewer employers subsidize that and fewer individuals see the time and cost of going back to school as worth the gains, but how do these declines map against the population of 18-25 yo people in general?

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