Where have all the college students gone?

Economic recovery among many factors driving higher ed enrollments down

The numbers should unsettle enrollment professionals: College and university enrollment rates have decreased for each of the last four years and nothing indicates a reversal anytime soon.

A look at recent headlines reflects this trend:

  • Mary Baldwin College in Virginia and Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore each saw a drop of 5 percent last year.
  • Marlboro College in Vermont enrolled only 182 full-time students, falling well below its target of 300.
  • McDaniel College in Maryland had a 7 percent decline.
  • Ferrum College in southwestern Virginia experienced an 8 percent drop.
  • Virginia State and Norfolk State, two historically black universities, had declines of 7 percent and 15 percent, respectively. In fact, the drop forced Virginia State in 2014 to close residence halls, cut back dining operations and curtail non-essential maintenance to cope with the revenue loss.

Across higher ed, full-time enrollment fell 1.5 percent, while the number of part-timers shrunk by 2.1 percent, according to the most recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“The numbers are still dropping,” says Jason DeWitt, a Clearinghouse research manager. “We see the four-year for-profits and the two-year community colleges dropping and it should continue throughout the year.”

The for-profit industry has been hit unusually hard by a nearly 16 percent decrease, which DeWitt attributes partly to the Obama administration’s increasing pressure on those institutions to produce proof of results.

But two-year public schools have also seen significant reductions, DeWitt says. “The thing to note is that these overall declines are being driven mostly by the older nontraditional students. We see that in the over-24 category, especially in two-year public schools—enrollments were down by 5.7 percent in fall 2015 and down by similar amounts in most years prior to that.”

Some don’t need a degree

Many blame the economy for the decline. It’s no secret that when the economy is bad, people return to school during hard times. That was as true during the recessions of 1980, 1991 and 2001 as it was for the “Great Recession” of 2008.

“We saw a surge in enrollments with the recent economic downturn by people who, in many instances, never thought they would be going to college,” says former U.S. Congressman George Miller who, until his recent retirement, served as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. “These people suddenly realized they would need to get a certificate or credential to hold onto the job they already had or to replace a job that fell victim to the recession.”

But slowly, the economy began to improve with quarter after quarter of job growth, lower unemployment and additional career opportunities, Miller says. The result is that many young people are choosing to step out of their college careers.

Others consider a college education unnecessary in a new economy fueled by tech startups, service companies and online enterprises.

Riding an enrollment roller coaster

Total higher education enrollment, which includes undergraduate and graduate students, peaked in 2011. Unfortunately, that is also when the rising wave of high school graduates crested and began falling steadily. Take that group out of the equation and colleges find themselves struggling to regain enrollment numbers.

Many in higher ed expected the change, says Peace Bransberger, senior research analyst at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). The organization researches high school graduation trends in its “Knocking at the College Door” report, produced about every four years.

From 2005 to 2009, the number of high school graduates grew at a robust 2 percent each year.

“That was good news for colleges, which had a steady supply of students,” Bransberger says. “But we also knew and had predicted for years that there would be a steady leveling out and even a brief downturn in those numbers, largely influenced by a reduction in the number of births 17 or 18 years earlier.”

The data indicates that the majority of states will have to cope with declines for a few more years before the numbers gradually reapproach 2010 levels, she says.

“That will continue for a few years, but then, because we saw such significant declines in birth rates in the last decade, we’ll see a decline again,” she says. “If you are doing five- or 10-year planning at a university, the next five years may not be so rocky, but beyond that we can expect a downturn again.”

With data available from WICHE and other sources, many colleges saw what was coming, says Jon McGee, vice president for planning and public affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota, and author of Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

But some were still unprepared. “When the arrows are going in one direction for a long period of time, it is easy to fall into the trap that they will always be pointed in that direction,” McGee says. “We have to enroll a new class every single fall, so a lot of energy and attention goes to the immediate rather than what will or might happen five years or 10 years from now.”

Capitalizing on diversity

Colleges and universities also must plan to support a rapidly diversifying population of incoming students.

WICHE projects that 45 percent of the nation’s public high school graduates will be non-white by 2019-20, compared to 38 percent in the class of 2009. This pattern is driven most obviously by the rapid increase in the number of Hispanics completing high school, with a corresponding drop for white students.

Bransberger says these changing demographics add another wrinkle to enrollment numbers. “There are increasing numbers of high school students from formerly nontraditional racial or ethnic minorities, while the ‘traditional’ student rates—which historically would have focused on white high school graduates—have declined each year, never to return.”

Nearly one-third of students entering two- or four-year colleges in the U.S. each year are of the first generation in their families to do so, and are more likely to be minorities.

These numbers might not be so important if high schools did a better job preparing these students for the academic, social and cultural changes of college, and if colleges did a better job guiding their paths, notes Miller.

According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, these students are far less likely to graduate. In six years, 40 percent of first-generation students will have earned a bachelor’s or associate degree or certificate, compared to 55 percent of their classmates whose parents attended college.

Additionally, the nationwide college graduation rate for black students stands at “an appallingly low” rate of 42 percent—that’s 20 percentage points below the 62 percent rate for white students, according to a report in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

Alternatives to the old college experience

A range of other factors make what’s happening now different than the enrollment swings of the past. For one, the two most recent enrollment booms led to an unprecedented expansion of colleges and campus space. There are nearly 1,000 more colleges and universities now than there were in the not-so-distant 1990s, notes McGee.

Online schools have proliferated and technology has advanced far beyond what existed even as recently as the last recession. That has been a saving grace for community colleges in particular.

According to the 2015 ITC National eLearning Survey, “eLearning enrollments have accounted for nearly all student enrollment growth at community colleges during the past 11 years.”

Industry-specific schools that prepare students for a particular career—without forcing them to struggle through comparative literature or biology courses that don’t apply to their chosen fields—offer yet more alternatives to the traditional college experience.

“The shift has definitely gone from the seller to a buyer’s market,” notes McGee, and some schools are struggling to make sense of that. Why go through two or four years of traditional college, when you all you need is to get a job-related credential or certification?

Reducing friction for students

The quick fix for many schools facing enrollment declines is to recruit from out of state.

The University of Oregon, for example, is in the midst of a massive campaign to boost out-of-state and international enrollment. The success of that effort has meant that just 47 percent of new freshmen in 2014 were state residents, compared with 68 percent a decade earlier.

The University of Maine announced it would allow students from neighboring states to pay the same tuition rates as in-state students (see “Maine’s flagship eyes out-of-state applicants,” page 20). Overall, a NACUBO report found that private colleges discounted tuition by an average of 48 percent in 2014, to attract more students.

Some schools are going after untapped markets.

“Our student population had been about half traditional students and half adults,” says Arlene Cash, vice president for enrollment management at Guilford College in North Carolina. “When the economy improved we felt a significant decline in our adult population. We’re trying to fill those numbers with traditional students, but we’re also going after the non-completers, the people who started college and stopped out for whatever reason.”

Cash says the school relies not on admission counselors but on enrollment coaches who work with these students individually on everything from gathering credits they’ve already earned elsewhere to choosing courses and finding strategies that will help them stay on the road to completion.

Colleges and universities must work together more closely to keep all students progressing toward graduation, says Miller. That means, among other initiatives, improved articulation agreements that enable students who start in one school—whether a two- or four-year—to transfer seamlessly to another school.

“Higher education needs to be efficient and should lack the institutional friction that causes many students to repeat courses or to drop out or start over,” Miller says. “The students can’t afford it, the families can’t afford it and the nation can’t afford it.”

Schools are now recognizing more the responsibility to really hang with these students when they arrive, and to develop the data that helps professors guide them on a successful path, he says.

“That’s very different than students just wandering around and signing up for classes in the gym or online, not knowing whether it will help or whether they will be spending more money than necessary on courses that won’t be accepted.”

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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