Story at a glance

  • New data shows a 1.3 percent drop in college enrollments.
  • It is the first time in a decade that America has fewer than 18 million college students.
  • Experts say several factors are influencing the trend, including the healthy economy and cost of tuition.
  • To compensate, schools are recruiting outside of the normal college students demographics.

For many students, getting into college is the ultimate goal. But new data from the National Student Clearinghouse reveals that for an increasing number of students, a college degree is not a priority.

In a blog post, the National Student Clearinghouse stated that college enrollments decreased by 1.3 percent in the fall of 2019 — the eighth year in a row in which fall enrollments have declined. 

This marks the first time in a decade in which fall enrollment dropped below 18 million.

This trend is affecting all types of institutions of higher learning, from public four-year schools to private nonprofit institutions. 

Doug Shapiro, the executive research director at the National Student Clearinghouse, detailed the trends behind the number, saying that the higher institution industry has 2 million fewer applicants total than in 2011, confirming “Most of the pain hits the Midwest and Northeast, even as some states in the South and West saw modest growth.”

Several factors contribute to this decline. An NPR report says the biggest reason for the years of decline is a strong economy. An indirectly proportional relationship exists between the economy and college enrollment: When the economy is strong, as it is today, more students are likely to take time off or postpone college in favor of working full-time. 

The cost of college — a hot topic in the 2020 presidential race — also plays a role in college attendance. With states giving less money to higher education, tuition becomes a key source of revenue for schools, which makes them tighten up on scholarships and other school-granted aid. 

To combat declining enrollment rates, schools are reaching out to new demographics. In the 1980s, recruiters targeted women, but today, women outnumber men on college campuses. 

Today, outreach means looking toward Hispanic students, first-generation college students and adults looking to complete their education. 

Colleges and universities are also working on retaining current students by providing more academic and health support to encourage them to stay until graduation.

Published on Dec 17, 2019