College enrollment in the United States dropped by almost a half-million students in 2012, after rising steadily between 2006 and 2011, according to a U.S. Census report released on Sept. 6. It’s not good news for schools facing escalating costs and declining government support.
Tuition costs, and a growing awareness of the burden of student loan debt, are a likely factor in the enrollment drop, said U.S. Census Bureau statistician Julie Siebens, noting that the census survey did not ask respondents why they chose not to enroll.
“Improved labor market conditions may also have lured potential students out of school and into jobs,” Siebens said.
Is it the economy?
The decline in enrollment was much sharper among students age 25 and older. Their enrollment fell by 419,000, while enrollment of 18- to 24-year-olds declined by only 48,000.
That points to an improving economy as the chief driver behind the enrollment drop, because it suggests that non-traditional students are returning to jobs, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization for higher education institutions.
“When times are tough, Americans go to college or trade school to improve their employability,” Hartle said. “There is less need when jobs are more plentiful. Colleges and universities always prefer large enrollment, but this is good news in general, because it reflects a stronger economy.”
During 2008 and 2009, during the depths of the recession, higher education enrollment jumped by 12 percent. Now it is returning to normal levels, Hartle said.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows college enrollment rose sharply during the four periods of economic recession that occurred since 1978.
Since 2001, college tuition has risen much faster than inflation — about 5.4 percent annually above the inflation rate, according to figures from College Board, an organization for colleges and universities.
Many see rising tuition costs as the big reason behind the decline in college enrollment. A 2013 survey by auditing firm KPMG of 102 college officials found that 58 percent identified parent/student inability to pay tuition as the top factor in dropping enrollment. Those same administrators responded that declining state support is the biggest reason tuition keeps rising at their schools.
“Affordability is a serious and growing problem, but it’s part of a much larger complex of issues involving how public higher education is supporting itself,” said Peter Harkness, senior policy advisor to the Pew Center on the States and founder of “Governing” newsmagazine.
As enrollment expanded over the past six years, state funding declined precipitously around the nation, Harkness said. As a result, some states’ flagship public universities began acting more like private schools — filling their seats with large numbers of wealthy out-of-state students who can pay their high tuition.
“That puts a lot more pressure on in-state students who don’t have sufficient means,” he said. “They end up delaying college or going to other schools in their state systems that are not the flagships, but cost less.”
The drop in college enrollment parallels a larger demographic trend, Harkness said. U.S. Census Bureau projections show the number of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. is in decline, and expected to decline further before beginning a slow rise in about 2018.
The new report on enrollment showed Latinos didn’t follow the national decline in college enrollment. Their enrollment numbers grew by 447,000, from 2011 to 2012, as non-Hispanic white enrollment fell by 1.1 million and black enrollment by 108,000. Again, larger demographic trends are involved.
“The adult Hispanic population in the United states has risen faster than both the white non-Hispanic and black populations in recent years,” said Siebens, the Census statistician.
The percentage of Latinos enrolling in college has jumped, too — from 8.8 to 9.5 percent in the past year. During the same period, enrollment rates for the general U.S. population slipped from 8.7 to 8.3 percent, Siebens said.
It’s not surprising that the number of Latino college students is increasing as that segment of the U.S. population grows, Hartle said.
“But they are still under-represented,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.”
If the drop in college enrollment becomes an ongoing trend, that could spur innovation — and force hard choices.
“The drop-off in enrollment is not enough now to push the panic button, but it may be yet another indicator of the serious trouble that higher education is in,” Harkness said. “We really have reached a tipping point.”
States will be forced to start increasing support for higher education back to traditional levels, or figure out other ways to educate students, Harkness said. Many are trying to innovate, he said, mostly by incorporating online learning options into their programs in ways that expand the reach of high-paid professors and reduce facility costs.
“That may be a partial answer, but it’s not the full answer,” Harkness said. “With classes that involve a lot of lab work, you just can’t do it.”
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