American higher education enrollment declines again

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoThe number of students enrolled in American colleges and universities declined this spring.  Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) depicts a gradually changing student body, with serious implications for post-secondary education.

In spring 2015 American campuses taught 18,592,605 people.  That’s a drop of 1.9% compared to spring 2014, which saw 18,948,521 students.  And a further from of 2.3% compared to 2013, which enrolled 19,105,651.

That decline is very unevenly distributed. Community colleges and for-profits saw the biggest hits, while private baccalaureates went down a slight amount and public four-years actually rose by a hair:

Estimated National Enrollment by Sector

Spring 2015 columns are the light green ones, on the right of each sector’s data cluster.


There are some other interesting details about this report:

  • Adult learners were much more likely to avoid college than traditional-age students.  For example, those “24 and Under” went down by 0.8% overall, while their seniors dropped by 3.6%.   The difference was especially stark in the two-year sector, where the under 25s declined by 1.9%, but their elders plummeted 7.0%.
  • Women continue to outnumber men in student numbers, by 10,611,385 to 7,981,219.
  • Bigger is better this year.  Smaller institutions (“under 3,000”, “3,000 to 9,999”) experienced declines of 2.4% and 1.9%, respectively, while larger ones (10,000 or more) actually grew by 2.1%.
  • New Hampshire enjoyed an almost off-the-charts growth, rising 19.0%!  That’s probably to to SNHU’s online success.

How can we interpret this data?

The economy is doing better: that’s Bloomberg’s view, and Inside Higher Ed concurs.  Now, the economy is mostly doing better for the 1%, so that shouldn’t have an impact on student numbers do this degree.  More likely Bloomberg is referring to the drop in unemployment, in which case would-be students are pursuing badly-compensated jobs instead of higher education.

For-profits are in a nosedive: that’s what several folks (Tom Mennella, Spencer Scott) observed on Twitter.  As you can see from the charts and comments above, for-profits certainly lead in this dismal race.  However, I’d be careful with such a reading.  The decline went almost across the board.  Community colleges are badly hit.  And for-profits teach (taught) a lot of students, who don’t seem to be leaving those institutions for others.  If other sectors had picked them up, overall numbers would be unchanged and those sectors should have experience growth, setting aside everything else.  I fear the for-profits attracted students no other educators were reaching, and those other sectors still aren’t reaching them even now.

Percent Change from Previous Year, overall numbersMore evidence for peak higher education: these data fit neatly and sadly into my peak higher education model.  Readers may recall this hypothesis (blogged here first; IHE version) that American colleges and universities reached an upper bound of students around 2011-2012, and that we’ve been sliding down a declining slope ever since.  Powerful forces drive this decline, including demographics, reactions to published tuition, and the student debt specter. Look at this excerpt from the Clearinghouse data, on the right, which shows small but steady drops in overall enrollment every semester since fall 2012.

This is a problem for most campuses: the majority of American colleges and universities depend mightily on student tuition.  As the number of tuition-paying students declines, we will have to fight harder to win shares from a shrinking pool.

Potential side effects: less incentive to collaboration with other campuses, if competition is heating up.  Residential institutions might up the amenities arms race, if adult learners are on the wane; conversely, schools could emphasize greater convenience for non-residential students.  Marketing to foreign students will certainly grow.  Public institutions will increase their marketing to out-of-state students, heightening competition even further.

Will any non-profits try to pick up students fleeing the for-profits?

(thanks to Shel Sax)

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5 Responses to American higher education enrollment declines again

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