NOEL KING, HOST:
Many fewer students are going to college this year. That's according to some new data out today. Those low enrollment numbers mean that many colleges are struggling to fill lecture halls and classrooms. And that could mean trouble. In some cases, it has even forced smaller colleges to close. NPR's Elissa Nadworny got an early look at the new numbers. Hey, Elissa.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: So college enrollment is dropping?
NADWORNY: Yeah. We're in a college enrollment crisis. I mean, these numbers confirm that. This fall, there are about 250,000 fewer students enrolled in college than a year ago. That's according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks college enrollment by students. It's the eighth year in a row that we've seen enrollment go down. It's happening across the board for every type of college - community colleges, for-profit, state schools. And the drop looks especially painful for small private colleges.
KING: This is astonishing to hear because it seems as if we're in a time in history when high schools are pushing students to go to college...
KING: ...Saying college is the future. You've got to get a degree if you want to succeed. So what's going on?
NADWORNY: So the big factor is the economy, you know? It's really good. The last time college enrollment was up was in 2011. So that's the tail end of the recession. Economy's good. Unemployment is down. People are working, and they're not in college. The other factor is the birth rate. Eighteen years ago, there weren't as many kids, which means there are fewer high school graduates. So even if they get a lot of people to graduate, there just aren't enough of them. The other thing is the cost of college...
NADWORNY: ...Right? I mean, states are putting less money into higher ed, which means tuitions go up. And that strapping higher education is strapping families.
KING: Now, I know you've been looking into the numbers. And you found that this is not the first time...
KING: ...We've seen this kind of decline, right?
NADWORNY: Yeah. So actually, in the '80s, we faced a similar enrollment decline - robust economy, lower birth rates. But there was a group of people that saved higher ed back then.
KING: Was it...
NADWORNY: It was women.
KING: ...Women? It was women.
KING: Yeah. Yeah.
NADWORNY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And so, today, women overrepresent men in college. So that resource is tapped.
KING: So why is this important for most of us? I mean, why does the number of people going to college actually matter?
NADWORNY: So two big things - so employers need skilled workers. So colleges, especially community colleges, provide that training. So folks are not going to college - then they're not able to fill those jobs in the future. The other thing is that having a college degree kind of insulates you from a downturn in the economy. So a recession hits - you're able to change jobs. You're more likely to be employed.
KING: I know that you've reported on some smaller schools closing. How do colleges survive this?
NADWORNY: They're adapting. You know, one of our member station reporters, Max Larkin at WBUR, he found a school outside Boston that's going to great lengths - actually, great distances...
NADWORNY: ...To fill the seats. So here's some of his reporting.
MAX LARKIN, BYLINE: Pine Manor College opened its doors in 1911 as a small women's college. Today, the Boston area school is co-ed and serves just under 350 students. And they fight for each one. Recruitment has become essential to Pine Manor's survival. So Tom O'Reilly, the college's president, has taken a hands-on approach.
TOM O'REILLY: There aren't that many colleges - presidents who go out and visit high schools. Why do I do it? Because we're very intentional about who we're going to serve.
LARKIN: O'Reilly is looking for students whose parents haven't gone to college. For years, Pine Manor found them in nearby communities. Most of their student body still comes from Massachusetts. But with New England projected to graduate fewer high schoolers in the decades ahead, O'Reilly's looking beyond Greater Boston. He now makes regular recruiting trips to El Paso, Texas, more than 2,000 miles away.
O'REILLY: Quick question - does anyone know where Boston is?
LARKIN: On a recent visit to Valle Verde Early College High School, O'Reilly brought backup - two current Pine Manor students who are also from Texas. Business major Diego Herrera (ph) grew up in El Paso.
DIEGO HERRERA: We're here to answer any question you guys have. I am bilingual. (Speaking Spanish).
LARKIN: Biology major Raudel Gomez (ph) grew up in South Texas. He tells the room of high schoolers what it's like on campus.
RAUDEL GOMEZ: It's peaceful. It's welcoming. It's nice. There's nothing but green trees all over the campus.
LARKIN: Then it's O'Reilly's turn to field questions.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What kind of student would want to go to Pine Manor?
O'REILLY: I would say students who want to be known.
LARKIN: O'Reilly used to work in sales. But he doesn't want these prospective students to have any illusions about his little college.
O'REILLY: We're a small place, so we're not going to offer what a state college offers. But what we are going to offer you is a place where faculty will say, hey, how can I help you?
LARKIN: 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 some students are interested, like 17-year-old Skylan Reyes (ph).
SKYLAN REYES: I don't know. Like, going so far away, I think it's a - I think it would be super cool. It'd be a really great experience, like, to go out of your comfort zone, especially since we're so small here.
LARKIN: So far, these trips are paying off. Texans now make up 6% of Pine Manor's enrollment. That's about 20 paying students who had probably never heard of, let alone considered, the school until they heard directly from its president.
For NPR News, I'm Max Larkin in Boston.
KING: So that's really interesting. Pine Manor is going after first-generation students. Are there other groups - other demographic groups that colleges should be looking at here?
NADWORNY: So one huge opportunity for colleges is this population of people - they're mostly adults - who have some college and no degree. Recent research showed that this was 36 million Americans. States are paying attention to this. I talked to someone in Michigan named Erica Orians, who works with colleges there to recruit students.
ERICA ORIANS: In Michigan, we have about 100,000 high school graduates every year. But we know that there are about 1 million adults in Michigan with some college and no degree.
KING: It's amazing.
NADWORNY: So for every one high schooler, there are about 10 perspective adults. You know, the challenge, of course, is finding those students. Like, high schoolers, we know where they are. They're in their high schools. So it's easier to recruit. And for adults...
ORIANS: They are everywhere. I mean, they're working. They are parents. They are engaged in their community. Even just finding the students can be a challenge.
NADWORNY: They have lives. Like, they move around. They change their addresses. They change their cellphones.
KING: Are there any bright spots here?
NADWORNY: So the one bright spot is that colleges are realizing they can serve the students they already have rather than go out and get new students. So they're investing in student supports like counseling, like data to help students graduate. And it's working. Last week we got new numbers on college completion rates. So 60% of people who start college are finishing in six years. It's the highest it's been in nearly a decade.
KING: That is good news. NPR education reporter Elissa Nadworny, thanks so much.
NADWORNY: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.