Why Are Colleges Seeing a Decline in Undergraduate Enrollments?

Why Are Colleges Seeing a Decline in Undergraduate Enrollments?

by | Apr 25, 2018 | Current Term Enrollment, Research Services |

Research Center’s Doug Shapiro Explains

Doug Shapiro, Executive Research Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

According to the Fall 2017 Current Term Enrollment Estimates report, higher education enrollment has declined for the sixth consecutive year. Why are colleges seeing a decline? How significant is the decline this year compared to previous years? What’s the future look like for enrollment?

By the numbers from the fall 2017 Current Term Enrollment Report:

  • 224,000 fewer undergrads than last year
  • 228,000 fewer students over 24 years old this year
  • Overall, 1.5 million fewer adult students compared to 2010
  • 63,000 fewer new first-time undergrads
    • 38,000 fewer over 25
    • 25,000 fewer 18 to 24-year olds
  • 7 of 10 biggest state declines this year are in the Midwest
  • More than 24,000 more graduate and professional degree enrollments

Why are colleges seeing a decline in undergrad enrollment?

There are two main forces that have been affecting enrollments:

  • The economy: low unemployment rates make the job market more attractive for students than going to college; and
  • Population demographics: the number of high school graduates has been stagnant or declining nationally

The vast majority of the enrollment declines over the past six years have been at community colleges and for-profit colleges, which tend to enroll older students. The employment picture is driving the biggest declines, and that’s mostly among older students.

How significant is the enrollment decline this year compared to years past?

The pace of decline this year, at just one percent overall, is actually the slowest rate we’ve seen since the end of the recession. What’s new is that the four-year public colleges joined the declining trend this year. Although it’s a small drop, their dip into negative territory means that the decline is now affecting every major sector of higher education.

Community colleges and for-profit colleges have been losing students for six years, mostly older students, ever since they peaked after the recession, around 2011-2012. The declines have slowed, but are still large. The declines at traditional four-year colleges while much smaller in percentage terms, have also been mostly among older students.

One place where the declines are accelerating is in the numbers of traditional-age freshmen. As stated, 25,000 fewer started college this year, which is in line with the shrinking numbers of high school graduates. This trend is regionally focused. High school graduates in the Midwest and Northeast have been declining since 2010 and will continue, while many states in the South and West are growing.

What’s the future look like for this decline to continue?

It’s hard to imagine unemployment rates going much lower, so the number of older students is likely to stabilize, but not grow. The number of high school graduates is expected to stay flat until around 2025. This means that colleges seeking growth or stability in enrollments are looking for ways to keep more of their existing students – improving retention and graduation rates – because the numbers of new students are just not going to be there.

How to decide if college is a right decision?

There’s been a lot of speculation about a decline in the value of college, but the data does not support this perception as playing much of a role in the current enrollment drops. In fact, the number of students currently seeking bachelor’s degrees is higher than it was two years ago. There are many important reasons for attending college, but even if a student only cares about the return on investment based on future earnings, college is definitely still worth it, on average, for students who graduate!

There’s a lot of data out there that show salaries for recent graduates with different kinds of degrees and certificates, but only within a few states. The data are imperfect, but one thing they agree on: what you major in matters a lot more than your college does.

The Fall 2017 Current Term Enrollment Estimates report, and the other research and work by the National Student Clearinghouse for the last 25 years has helped the education community collectively do more with their data and serve students. In May, watch for the Research Center’s spring 2018 Current Term Enrollment Estimates.

“What’s new is that the four-year public colleges joined the declining trend this year, so that it’s now affecting every major sector of higher education.”

Doug Shapiro
Executive Research Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center