America's College Enrollment Slump

College enrollment numbers are in a slump, and they have been for some time. Indeed, the steady college enrollment decline has now persisted for nearly a decade. College enrollment for 2019 was down from the previous year, marking the 8th consecutive year of statistically significant declining enrollment. But what’s behind declining U.S. college enrollment and what does it mean for you? Read on to find out more.

You’d have to imagine that spirits were pretty high in America’s various college admissions offices during the 2000s. Those were good times for the enrollment game. The Aughts capped off a 20-year period of remarkable and unprecedented growth in the higher education sector.

Between 1990 and 2011, college enrollment spiked by an incredible 54 percent. This represented a rise in total student population from 12 million to 18.5 million. It also helped to drive massive hikes in tuition and a proliferation of new entrants in the marketplace. For most schools, meeting expected student quotas was hardly a challenge.

What a difference two years can make.

Between 2011 and 2013, enrollment in America’s colleges declined by nearly one million students. And it wasn’t just a blip on the radar. It was the beginning of a new statistical trend. According to Inside Higher Ed, 2019 marked the 8th consecutive year-to-year enrollment decline. Collectively, colleges had shed 1.7% of enrollees from the prior spring. This is a loss of 300,000 students.

Clearly, the high times are over.

 Why the Decline?

But what’s behind the slump? Why, after decades of rapid ascent, are enrollment numbers suddenly in freefall? And is it actually sudden, or it something that we should have seen coming?

Is the dramatic dip in enrollment a harbinger of the higher education apocalypse that many a critic has predicted? Is it simply a correction in a marketplace that has swelled to a girth too big for its ivy-tangled britches? Are our admission numbers staked to the ebb and flow of the economy? Are more would-be students simply running off with the traveling circus to juggle knives, swallow swords, and do other things for which you can’t get a Stafford Loan?

Well, whatever’s behind it, its precipitous nature is cause for concern, or at least investigation.

 The Education Bubble Is Popping!

That’s one possible explanation, anyway.

If you are the type prone to panic attacks, you might lose some sleep over the numbers. It’s enough to presume that all the negative indicators with which we’ve become so familiar over the last several years have collided to create the perfect storm we all feared:

Excessive cost inflation and a surge in under-qualified students coupled with a proliferation of disreputable institutions and predatory lending schemes has punctured the college bubble and now it’s letting out hot air like a congressman on a drunken filibuster.

But is that really what’s happening?

Sure, on the surface it seems a reasonable deduction. In the last decade, we have been increasingly moved to ask whether or not we’re getting our money’s worth, to ask whether or not college is a decent investment. This regressive trend may suggest that students are ever less convinced, in spite of the fact that many of the old truisms still apply.

To wit, the earning potential for an individual with a bachelor’s degree far exceeds that of one without. PBS NewsHour pegs the unemployment rate for Americans with bachelor’s degrees at 3.2 percent, almost half the 6.1 percent national average.

Of course, if you acquire your bachelor’s degree the traditional way, you’re going to need that job just to repay your loans. Indeed, between the 1984-1985 academic year and present day, college tuition jumped at an average rate of 3.1 percent beyond inflation every single year. At the end of this 30-year cycle, tuition for the average nonprofit private four-year school is up 146 percent. Tuition for four-year public schools is up 225 percent.

Perhaps this is why individuals who find themselves at the educational crossroads have increasingly opted out. PBS NewsHour says that during the 2012–2013 academic year — a duration in which overall college enrollment declined by roughly 463,000 students — a drop-off was seen across all income levels, with the largest losses tallied among middle class families.

With the costs of college genuinely spiraling out of control, and student loan debt topping $1.4 trillion by 2019, we would be hard-pressed to dismiss the doomsayers offhand. By the numbers, the contraction of our college economy is happening at a startling pace.

But is the day of reckoning really upon us? Do these facts suggest that, without intervention, the infrastructure of American higher education is in a stage of imminent crumbling?

Well, maybe. But like a great many things in the world, it isn’t all that simple.

 Is This a Long Overdue College Market Correction?

It could be convincingly argued that we were in fact bound for this type of regression, that after decades of steady growth — topped by a particularly intense crest of enrollment through the previous decade, the college industry had reached its tipping point: too many colleges, too many students, too many degrees doddering around a saturated job-market looking for homes.

Between 2006 and 2011, enrollment in America’s colleges swelled by 3.2 million students. Swelling right alongside it was student debt, as well as the number of students who felt themselves unable, for one reason or another, to complete their college education. From this perspective, the decline in enrollment may be a good thing, or at the very least, a natural thing. If far too many candidates have attempted college in the last several decades, this reverse in growth is right on schedule.

It should also not be overlooked that the number of 18 to 24-year-old Americans actually rose by 3 million between 2002 and 2012. This pattern clearly had a bearing on the enrollment boom of the time.

By contrast, Inside Higher Ed projects a 4% decline among 18 to 24-year-olds between 2012 and 2022.

The current trend also parallels historical patterns of behavior which suggest that peaks and valleys in college enrollment are inversely proportional to the health of the American economy.

To this end, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that while college enrollment decreased 1.9 percent over the prior year, the downward momentum was mostly driven by students over the age of 24. Clearinghouse says that this demographic accounted for an imposing 74 percent of the decline.

Put another way, while community college enrollment ticked down by one-half of a percent for students under 24, enrollment among non-traditional or adult students tumbled by six percent between 2013 and 2014.

Insider Higher Ed observes that prospective students over the age of 24 tend to factor immediate employment opportunities into their decision-making process, as opposed to high-school graduates with immediate designs on campus life. While the average high school graduate may view college as the imminent next step, those in their mid-20s will have a greater tendency to view the college campus as a safe harbor during a tempest of economic misfortune.

So, for instance, as the U.S. was plunged into the Great Recession across 2007 and 2008, college admission rates spiked. Today, the unemployment rate is well-contained, as is inflation. For the moment, banks are stable, interest rates are low, the markets are robust, and it’s been years since a linchpin corporation has collapsed under the weight of its own malfeasance.

Of course, prognosticators can offer just as many arguments to suggest that the economic outlook is not so rosy in the immediate future. But for now, a steady and viable job market continues to draw prospective students out of the harbor.

Those demographics who might have vacillated between the classroom and the cubicle during the last decade’s recession are now firmly entrenched in the workplace. Many will also have been moved to their decision by the far lesser certainty that comes with the attainment of a college degree these days. Regardless of the socioeconomic end game, college costs beaucoup bucks. More prospective students than ever before are honestly weighing the pros and cons of this investment when given a suitable alternative in the job market.

Add to this the fact that employers have complained for years about the current crop of underprepared, undereducated, and underwhelming college graduates. Perhaps a self-selected thinning of the herd is not the worst thing that can happen. One might consider the value that is added to the college degree as the least ideal college candidates instead opt for vocational training or employment.

Case in point, evidence suggests that many of those declining to undertake the college experience may have already been straddling the fence. Whereas enrollment in four-year colleges dropped by one percent, two-year schools saw a far more notable 10 percent fall.

Where enrollment in a four-year school suggests interest in a lengthier and more costly commitment, community college is an attractive option to those testing the educational waters, waiting out a low tide in the job creation cycle, or studying part-time while maintaining employment.

These patterns suggest that the job market is temporarily winning the tug of war with community colleges for the otherwise undecided.

The good news is, thanks to the growing number and variety of online education opportunities, there are ways to pursue a college degree without sidetracking your career. Check out a few of these flexible degrees, most of them designed to accomodate adult learners and working adults.

 A Transforming Higher Education Marketplace

If indeed a correction has taken place, it is not solely an economic one. This correction is also somewhat evolutionary in nature. As the higher education sector has swelled in size, it has seen enormous transformation. From the inception of dramatic new technologies to the growing coffers commanded by the nation’s most successful institutions of higher learning, the student experience and the public role of colleges are both in a state of flux.

Consider, for instance, the for-profit college sector, which was rewarded for its lead role in proliferating online education with rapid expansion. It is certainly not a coincidence that its growth coincided with a more encompassing upward trend in college enrollment.

However, the for-profit industry’s decline during the Obama Administration was nearly as precipitous. According to U.S. News & World Report, during the stretch between the spring semesters of 2014 and 2015, four-year for-profit institutions shrank at a rate of 4.9 percent. The rate was 7.4 percent just between the fall and spring semesters of 2015.

The closure of crooked multi-campus education companies like Corinthian College certainly helped the for-profit college industry to top all other sectors in enrollment losses that year.

Still, this trend may not entirely be a referendum on for-profit college. Instead, a case may be made that the market has simply shifted.

For-profit colleges did pave the way for the mainstreaming of online education. That for-profits like Corinthian College and Trump University squandered the public’s trust has only helped non-profit public and private universities alike to make successful forays into online education.

Greater competition has genuinely impacted the bottom line among for-profit schools, as regionally accredited universities ascend within the online market. For instance, says Inside Higher Ed, private nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University projected an online enrollment of 36,000 students in 2016, a remarkable 100 percent increase over the previous two years.

This denotes that enrollment gains are still feasible for universities that succeed in balancing and serving shifts in student expectations.

If you are enrolled in a for-profit college, or an institution that is not regionally accredited, check out the resources below for helpful advice on making the most of your situation:

 So It’s All Good, Right?

Well, it is if you aren’t affiliated with one of the countless tiny college communities that simply can’t survive the correction. As they say, if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Sadly, some of these are wonderful little Fabergé eggs the likes of which we cannot replicate.

Take Sweet Briar College, for instance.

The Washington Post reported during the Spring 2015 semester that Sweet Briar would be forced to shutter its doors after 100 years before the start of the next semester. Critical enrollment shortages had financially crippled the small women’s college. Later sources report that restructuring and legal action have kept the doors open…for now.

But other schools were not as fortunate as Sweet Briar. The Washington Post identifies other reputable private, non-profit colleges that folded between 2014 and 2015 in just the D.C. region, including the Virginia Intermont College, the National Labor College, and the Corcoran College of Art & Design, the last of which was assimilated into George Washington University.

Other colleges in the region are facing some pretty difficult decisions in their immediate future, with some experiencing enrollment declines as sharp as 35 percent over the 2014-2015 academic year.

The Daily Caller warns that the enrollment decline is having a destructive ripple effect on the nation’s smaller campuses. Over the course of 2015, schools with a starting enrollment of under 3,000 ceded roughly 2.4 percent of their collective population, a trend which makes it difficult or impossible to adjust to shifting student needs and expectations.

 Doom and Gloom or the Price of Progress?

These trends may not dramatically differentiate our time from any other. Colleges do come and go, particularly those of smaller stature. Perhaps the greater concern is what their fate might imply about the broader system of American higher education.

In order for the current trend to truly be a temporary correction, it will have to stop at some point. At the moment, there are plenty of reasons to wonder if it will. The truth is, those who are contemplating college have an increasingly complex equation of pros and cons to weigh out. Stratospheric tuition rates and the burdensome quality of student debt remain troubling realities. They also combine with some less-than-promising demographic forecasts.

In a report called Projections of Education Statistics to 2022, the U.S. Department of Education suggests that we are not likely to come anywhere near recovering our previously torrid pace of growth. After growing at a rate of roughly 45 percent between 1997 and 2011, America’s student population is projected to grow by only 13.9 percent over the coming decade.

This projection denotes that general college enrollment numbers are not in line for a spectacular recovery. Still, there is plenty of hope for those colleges that best navigate changes in the student population, the higher education marketplace, and the larger economy.

Just as tuition rates skyrocketed alongside growth in the student population, enrollment projections over the next decade practically beg for a contraction in the cost of colleges. The future should be bright for those colleges willing to get competitive about pricing. Especially in the private nonprofit sector, those who respond to popular disenchantment over tuition rates will find ways to protect their slice of a contracting market.

The same is true for those universities that widen their focus from recruitment and enrollment to retention. The old business adage applies. It is cheaper to keep an existing customer than to court a new one. Colleges and universities that provide their students with meaningful academic, administrative, financial, and campus-life support can offset enrollment losses by improving student outcomes and reducing dropout or transfer rates.

Colleges that diversify student opportunities are also likely to enjoy some measure of stability, or even growth, as demonstrated by the above-mentioned Southern New Hampshire University. The U.S. Department of Education predicts that the population of part-time students will increase at a faster clip than that of full-time students over the next decade. This means that schools offering a greater range of part-time, online, or mixed degree programs could be the greatest beneficiaries of a slow-paced recovery.

In the meantime, America’s ongoing enrollment slump places the onus on every college to ensure that its students are getting their money’s worth in terms of quality, support, and service. The most powerful weapon that we have against this pattern of contraction is the impression that college is actually worth the investment.

If you’re looking for a good starting point, check out The Most Affordable Online Colleges for Bachelor’s Degrees.

If you’re thinking about dipping a toe into your higher education through a community college, check out:

And keep in mind that it’s almost always more affordable to attend an in-state public school. This is true whether you’re on-campus or online, where lower in-state tuition rates usually still apply. With this in mind, check out The Most Affordable Four-Year College in Each State.