Why Did College Enrollment Rates Drop in 2019?

In the fall of 2019, there were nearly 250,000 fewer students enrolled in college compared to the year before, and this is not a new trend. Over the past eight years, college enrollment nationwide has fallen about 11%. Every sector — public state schools, community colleges, for-profits and private liberal arts schools — has felt the decline, though it has been especially painful for small private colleges, where, in some cases, institutions have been forced to close.

U.S. demographics are shifting, and it’s affecting college enrollment. The number of high school graduates is flat — and in some cases declining — because of lower birth rates beginning approximately 20 years ago. Those numbers are also projected to decline, so the trend of fewer students coming from high school isn’t going away anytime soon. There’s the cost of college to consider. States are putting less money into higher education, and that’s led to an increased reliance on tuition. As tuition goes up and grants and scholarships don’t keep pace, that’s pushed the cost of college down to students and their families. Without state investment, institutions are strapped, and so are American families. Even families who are able to afford higher education are starting to ask themselves whether the cost is worth it.

Employers still need skilled workers, however, whether it’s a profession that requires a four-year degree, an associate degree, or skills or trades that need certificates or credentials. If fewer people are getting those credentials, those jobs often sit empty. Community colleges play a large role in building these skills by offering associate degrees in technical and high-demand fields. But enrollment at community colleges is down about 100,000 students from the fall of 2018, and many of the jobs that are being filled right now are low-wage ones without much opportunity for advancement. 

In addition to increased earnings over time, research shows that having a college degree means you are less likely to be unemployed and more likely to weather uncertain economic conditions, such as a recession. So if people are choosing not to go to college right now, there may be consequences down the road. While a lot of college recruiting focuses on high school students, many colleges might do well to look at another pool of potential students: adults returning to college. New research shows there are about 36 million Americans — mainly adults — who have some college classes under their belt, but no degree. These students offer a huge opportunity for colleges, and in some communities they are far more prevalent than seniors in high school.

The challenge is that returning adult students are a lot harder to recruit. For high school students, we know where they are and generally what they’re looking for, but when it comes to adults, those factors change. Of course, it’s much more complicated than simply recruiting more — or different — students. Schools need to look at other options, such as exploring partnerships with a global tech company to bring in additional revenue by helping train their existing employees in liberal arts.

To stave off the college enrollment decline, colleges have to get creative, and be open to change. One change that may be easier is a greater focus on retaining the students who are already enrolled. It’s a lot easier to keep existing students than to find new ones, so more and more schools are investing in helping their current students graduate. They’re beefing up support services including counselors, offering detailed plans to help them graduate and using data to flag and ultimately prevent them from dropping out, and it’s paying off. Last week, new numbers on graduation rates revealed that 60% of students who start college get their degree in six years. That’s the highest its been in nearly a decade. 

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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