Enrollment in postsecondary institutions — colleges and universities — has been on a multi-year decline. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment in the US picked up slightly — 0.5% — in spring 2023 versus spring 2022, though only after experiencing big declines in the prior two years. In fact, college enrollment decline is very real. Enrollment had decreased for the eighth consecutive year as of May 2019 — and that was before the pandemic struck. How can enrollment be declining when everyday it seems as though more and more high school students are going off to college? How can college enrollment be declining while at the same time student loan debt climbs higher and higher?
The decline in college enrollment is more complex than it simply being a decline in high school students going on to college. In fact, declines in college enrollment by high schoolers are not the main contributor to this overall decline in enrollment. Demographics and economics play a large role in influencing college enrollment trends.
Read on to find out why enrollment in postsecondary schools have been on the decline for nearly a decade and what the future holds for them.
Table of Contents
- College enrollment trends from 2000 to 2021
- College enrollment by state
- College enrollment from 2001-2002 to 2020-2021 in the US
- State by state college enrollment patterns
- The bottom line on college enrollment decline
Since the turn of the millennium, the general trend of college enrollment has been that of a decade of growth, from 2001 to roughly 2010-2011, followed by nearly a decade of continuous, gradual decline, 2011-2012 to 2020-2021 (latest years data is available for). And this pattern holds up on the state-level for the majority of U.S. states. Using data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), BrokeScholar analyzed the college enrollment trends of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Here's a look at some of the most notable college enrollment trends by state.
Most states exhibit a similar pattern to that of the national trend in postsecondary school enrollment: College enrollment increased from 2001-2002 to around the years 2009 to 2012 — overlapping with the toughest economic years of the Great Recession — and then has declined since those peaks. The biggest drop was experienced by Iowa, which peaked with 576,698 students enrolled in college in 2010-2011. Enrollment then dropped by 54.2%, so that by 2020-2021, enrollment was down to 264,030. Alaska saw a large decline as well, with enrollment starting at 54,652 in 2001-2002, peaking at 61,426 in 2011-2012, before declining by 41.6% down to 35,858 in 2020-2021.
Examining college enrollment trends on a state-by-state basis reveals some interesting patterns and themes. For example, 16 states out of 50 have experienced an outright decline in college enrollment from 2001-2002 to 2020-2021, with Alaska suffering the worst drop, at 34.4%. Notably also, Michigan and Illinois witnessed major decreases as well: A decline of 25.1% for Michigan and a decline of 21.5% for Illinois from 2001-2002 to 2020-2021.
There are 4 states that really stood out for their absolute growth in college enrollment since 2001:
- West Virginia college enrollment change, 2001-2021: 73.4%
- Idaho college enrollment change, 2001-2021: 80.9%
- Utah college enrollment change, 2001-2021: 98.7%
- New Hampshire college enrollment change, 2001-2021: 207.8%
The case of New Hampshire's college enrollment is particularly interesting. This is because a large part of what's contributing to New Hampshire's significant growth in enrollment is likely due to the explosion in popularity of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which is both an on-campus college and a major online college, combining to make it one of the largest colleges in the US.
We come to the big question of: What is behind this almost decade-long decline in college enrollment? Several factors are at play when it comes to this question. A big factor is the role played by for-profit colleges over the past 20 years, which saw dramatic growth the first decade or so before falling off substantially. Another related factor is the conversion of for-profit colleges to nonprofit colleges, as Grand Canyon University has done recently. This in part contributes to the decline in for-profit enrollment and the overall decline as well. However, there is still more to the story of college enrollment decline.
Community colleges are another important player in this overall decline in college enrollment. Whereas four-year public institutions experienced a drop of 0.9% in enrollment from 2018 to 2019, community colleges witnessed a decline of 3.4%. Meanwhile, private four-year college enrollment grew by 3.2%, however, this also includes the schools that converted from for-profit to nonprofit, as previously mentioned.
Community colleges, like for-profit colleges, have disproportionately more "non-traditional" or adult students, those over the age of 24. This demographic has been especially responsible for much of the decline in college enrollment seen since 2010. So, while the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported in 2015 that college enrollment decreased 1.9% over the prior year, the downward trend was mostly driven by students over the age of 24. Indeed, that demographic accounted for 74% of the decline.
Below you'll find a breakdown of the change in enrollment from the previous year from Fall 2015 through Spring 2019, based on data from Inside Higher Ed.
Type of Institution
|4-Year Private Nonprofit||-0.3%||0.7%||-0.6%||-0.2%||-0.4%||-0.4%||2.4%||3.2%|
As you can see, four-year for-profit schools are responsible for much of the decline seen in overall college enrollment. In spring 2019, four-year for-profit schools experienced a decline of almost 20% in enrollments compared to the previous year. Every spring and fall period since 2015, four-year for-profit colleges have seen a decline in their enrollment numbers from the year prior.
The other negative trend — enrollment in community colleges or two-year public schools — is very apparent here as well. Two-year public schools have consistently experienced declines every spring and fall since 2015.
It's important to bear in mind the age of students who often attend four-year for-profit and two-year public schools. Students here are disproportionately older students and this demographic tends to factor immediate employment opportunities into their decision-making process. This is in contrast to high school graduates with immediate plans for college and campus life. Similarly, the average high school graduate may view college as the forthcoming next step, while those over the age of 24 tend to view college campus as a place to weather economic downturns. This perhaps explains why enrollment has been declining in these schools so much because, since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009, the US economy went on a decade-long period of expansion that ended only with the pandemic-induced recession of 2020. All that economic growth requires labor, and ideally, educated labor, hence a shift by adult students out of schools and into the workforce.
The impact of the pandemic has utterly transformed the landscape of higher education. All norms and assumptions taken for granted have been cast asunder. Colleges and college towns are feeling the squeeze on their finances. As revenues dry up, many small colleges are in danger of closing down. Many schools have already taken steps to cut costs through furloughs, layoffs and the closing down of entire major and minor degree programs. This kind of damage will almost certainly lead to a decline in college enrollment for the foreseeable future. However, it could produce other trends, even positive ones, as well.
As mentioned before, economic downturns can often induce people over the age of 24 to start or complete their education. This is something that occurred to an extent during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and could happen again as the US. steadily recovers from the effects of the pandemic. The new importance placed on virtual, at-home learning and working by the pandemic undoubtedly influenced colleges and universities during the height of the pandemic and into the future. With greater online access to education, both nonprofit and for-profit, it wouldn't be surprising to see an uptick in enrollment in the next few years. At the same time, the disruption to normal campus life on colleges could act as a major damper on new applications and admissions to college. This would of course drive future college enrollment down.