Did the decade-long enrollment decline turn around?

Bryan Alexander 2024-02-03

Greetings from February, which somehow occurred just as I was getting adjusted to December.  Over the past month I’ve been frantically teaching, traveling (US, Qatar), pitching a new book idea, managing the Future Trends Forum into autumn, arranging professional engagements through summer, caring for my wife… and while I’ve started a dozen blog posts here, I haven’t published them.  It’s time to get back into the bloghouse and posting seriously again.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoLet me begin with some important higher education data. The National Student Clearinghouse just issued the latest update on enrollments and I’d like to dig into it.

The big takeaway: for the first time in more than a decade enrollment didn’t decline.  It actually ticked up by 1.1% in fall 2023.

Let’s look at some details.

Undergraduate enrollment actually rose overall by 1.2% and across all institutional sectors, albeit unevenly.  Community colleges and for-profits saw the largest rises (2.6 and 3.8% respectively) while public and private 4-year institutions enjoyed a 0.6% increase.

enrollment undergrad 2019-2023 by sector_Clearinghouse 2024 Jan

Zoom in for details, as there’s a lot going on in this graph. “PAB” = Primarily Associate Degree Granting Baccalaureate Institution

Graduate school enrollment also rose by .6%, low enough to drag down the overall number.

Demographics: in terms of race, black, Latino, Asian populations enrolled in higher numbers, while white and Native American student numbers went down.  In terms of age there was some (0.8%) growth among teenagers, which seemed to be driven mostly by dual enrollments with high schools.

Geographically the south, midwest, and west saw increases.  The northeast differed by dipping down 0.4%.

The Clearinghouse also identified which courses of study enrolled how many students.  STEM fields and business led the pack, with computer science growing by 9.5% in four-year programs and more than 13% for graduate degrees.  Some allied health programs declined while others rose.

Some takeaways:

  • Community colleges and for-profits are the big winners here.  The Obama-Biden pressure on the latter group didn’t yield results this year, at least in terms of enrollment.  Quite the opposite. And dual enrollment (getting high school students into college classes) is the main reason community colleges pulled out of a long decline.  Dual enrollment seems to be a major driver for this overall enrollment change.
  • STEM and business majors continue to grow. That’s not a surprise, but constitutes a useful datapoint.
  • Some have said this reverses the pandemic decline, but that’s short-sighted.  The enrollment drop began in 2012.
  • For me, I’m intensely curious to see what this means for the past decade of enrollment decline. Does the new data mean that the shrinkage has ended, or is this a blip before classes dwindle again? Will the next years bring a growing population and a partial recovery of the academic population?  This Forbes piece celebrates the new enrollment numbers as “great news…. outstanding news.” That’s one view, upon which we could build a model. How long would it take for student numbers to build back up to 2012?  Remember that we’re deep in a hole – as Nathan Greenfield quotes Doug Shapiro, “there are still over a million empty seats on campuses today that were filled five years ago.”
  • Or do we see numbers return to the post-peak pattern of decline once more?  Demographics suggest yes.  Rising skepticism about higher education agrees, partially in response to as yet unreformed student debt. For-profits could suffer a collapse again, as they did starting with the Obama administration. My hunch is that if we see enrollment rise by 1+% each year we’ll still have an overbuilt ecosystem of colleges and universities for at least a couple of decades.

That’s all for now.  What do you make of this important data?