This fall, there were nearly 250,000 fewer students enrolled in college than a year ago, according to new numbers out Monday from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks college enrollment by student.
"That's a lot of students that we're losing," says Doug Shapiro, who leads the research center at the Clearinghouse.
And this year isn't the first time this has happened. 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.
"We're in a crisis right now, and it's a complicated one," says Angel Pérez, who oversees enrollment at Trinity College, a small liberal arts school in Hartford, Conn.
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Why is this happening?
The biggest factor for the years of decline is the strong economy. The last time U.S. college enrollment went up was 2011, at the tail end of the recession. As the economy gets better, unemployment goes down — it's currently at 3.5 % — and more people leave college, or postpone it, and head to work.
When the recession hit a decade ago, the reverse happened: Many people, especially older adults, returned to college. That bump in college enrollment set records, and in some ways the current downturn is simply "colleges returning to more historic levels of enrollment," Shapiro says.
U.S. demographics are also shifting. The number of high school graduates is flat — and in some cases declining — because of lower birth rates about 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.
And finally, there's the cost of college. 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.
These factors — and the data that support them — find their way into Pérez's meetings with the budget team at Trinity College. "Decreasing demographics, a decreasing ability to pay and an increasing lack of desire to pay from the people who can afford it" are the things that keep him up at night, worrying he may not fill his freshman class.
Even families who are able to afford higher education are starting to ask themselves whether the cost is worth it. "All of it becomes the perfect storm," he says.
The benefits of a degree
A strong economy and soaring college costs have made it even more difficult for colleges to persuade students to enroll.
And yet, employers still need skilled workers, whether it's a profession that requires a four-year degree, other jobs that require 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 "skilling up," 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 despite a healthy economy, many of the jobs that are being filled right now are low-wage ones, Shapiro explains. "Adults are feeling that, as long as they have a job, they don't need to go to college," he says. "And yet many of those jobs today don't really have the career potential or the earnings potential to support a family that they could get if they had a college degree."
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.
It's a simple solution: When you don't have enough students, it makes sense to find and recruit some additional students. In the 1970s and '80s, schools faced a similar enrollment crisis. Back then, colleges focused mainly on recruiting women. Today that resource is tapped out: Female students make up more than half of all enrollment.
So the question now is, what is the next group of students for recruiters to target? Based on the shifting demographics in public schools, it's likely that Hispanics and first-generation college students are at the top of that list and will make up a greater share of any future increase in enrollment
Pine Manor College, a small private college in the Boston area, knows the pain of this enrollment crisis all too well. Because it serves less than 350 students, the college has to fight for each one. Recruitment has become essential to Pine Manor's survival.
For years, the college drew many of its students from nearby communities. But as New England graduates fewer high schoolers, Pine Manor has set its sights beyond Boston, by about 2,000 miles. Tom O'Reilly, the college's president, now makes regular recruiting trips to El Paso, Texas.
"We're very intentional about who we're going to serve," says O'Reilly, who is specifically looking for students whose parents haven't gone to college.
The pitch is not for everyone. While Pine Manor is generous with aid, it's still more expensive than community college. It's also far from home — and often, far from warm.
But, so far, O'Reilly says, these trips are paying off. Texans now make up 6% of Pine Manor's enrollment — that's almost two dozen paying students who had probably never heard of, let alone considered, the school until they heard directly from its president.
While a lot of 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 and no degree. These students offer a huge opportunity for colleges, and in some communities they are far more prevalent than seniors in high school.
"In Michigan, we have about 100,000 high school students, but we have about a million adults with some college and no degree," says Erica Orians, who works with community colleges in that state. That means for every high schooler, there are 10 prospective adult students there.
The challenge is that returning adult students are a lot harder to recruit. For high school students, Orians says, "we know where those people are. High schoolers are a captive audience." But when it comes to adults, she says, "they are everywhere. They are working. They are parents. They are engaged with their community."
Adults have lives, she says, "they move, they change their addresses and their phone numbers."
Change is hard
Of course, it's much more complicated than simply recruiting more — or different — students. "A lot of schools believe, 'If we recruit hard enough, we will get people who want to come,' " Pérez says. "I just don't believe that's enough."
Still, every year, he says, Trinity College — and many others — put more resources into the admissions effort. But the school is also looking at other options, such as exploring partnerships with a global tech company, bringing in additional revenue by helping train their existing employees in liberal arts.
To stave off the enrollment decline, colleges have to get creative, and be open to change. "Putting an institution's future in the hands of hope," Pérez says, "that's not a good strategy"
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.