The total number of students enrolled in American higher education declined this fall. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, that number went down by 1.7% compared to fall 2014, from 19,619,773 to 19,280,473.
That’s the third year in a row where American higher ed has seen enrollment shrink.
Let’s dive into the details.
To begin with, the enrollment drop is not uniformly distributed across tertiary education sectors. Two took the highest hit: community colleges and especially for-profits, with the latter dropping 13.7%. Only four-year private nonprofits and publics showed growth, and it wasn’t major:
Since that’s hard to see without embiggening, let me zoom in on the overall piece:
Note that we’ve experienced a decline every single semester for the past three years.
Traditional-age learners didn’t drop as much as adults did, as the over 24 crowd declined by 4.3%. This is fodder for the argument that the “improving economy” (i.e., declining unemployment) theory, that some learners are leaving school to try the workplace (cf this IHE article). This also returns to the for-profit drop, as that sector is mostly about adults (24 and Under: 221,221…Over 24: 913,753).
Women continue to outnumber men across all sectors, and in the totals: Men 8,298,399; Women 10,982,073).
The state by state breakdown is fascinating, and I hope someone whips up a map for it. Several states saw enrollment actually rise significantly like New Hampshire (11.0%) and Utah (8.7%). Few states saw a massive decrease, with the exception of New Mexico (down more than 6%; this might be a reporting artifact); most simply stagnated or saw drops in the 1-4% range.
Matt Reed offers an interesting hypothesis for part of the decline:
I’ve heard anecdotal, but persistent, rumors that some non-elite four-year schools are lowering their admissions standards to maintain their enrollments. From a community college perspective, they’re fishing in our pond. That might explain why enrollments in our sector are dropping faster than demographics suggest they should, while enrollments in the four-years aren’t dropping at all.
That would fit with the “downshifting” theory, that families and adults are choosing less selective institutions to save money.
What does this mean for education? It means competition between institutions will heat up a bit, especially among tuition-dependent campuses (i.e., nearly all of them), making collaboration more difficult. That should include more effort placed in online teaching, especially among areas with demographic shortfalls (the northeast and midwest).
Declining overall enrollment also points to the vital importance of international students. Imagine how low the numbers would have been with only American learners.
Since this trend has been doing on since 2012, it might be evidence for my peak higher education concept.
I’ve been posting on declining enrollment for a while:
- The spring 2014 drop
- The 2013 decline
- The Spring 2013 decline
- Fewer high school grads heading to college
Let’s see how long this last. If the job market theory is correct, and Reed is right about 4-years poaching from 2-years, then we might see a continued contraction.