Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Enrollment cliff? What enrollment cliff?

US higher education enrollment has been declining slowly and consistently since 2011.  The downturn has been significant but small enough for the media and many people outside of higher education to miss this phenomenon. 

Enrollment is down about 5 million students a year from its peak.  
Source: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

In 2017, the Higher Education Inquirer began reporting on enrollment declines and potential problems related to the US Department of Education's optimistic projections.  We reported on declining numbers of high school graduates and reduced higher education funding in a number of states, including New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.  And we were also particularly concerned about the plummet in community college enrollment

In 2022 we reported that at least 18 US states had experienced enrollment drops greater than 20 percent--and five more were close to that threshold.  Losses at regional public universities were also troubling. 

In 2026 and 2027 we expect a more precipitous drop: a result of declining fertility rates during the 2008-2009 recession.   

So where does US higher education enrollment go after 2026?  And will more people notice? 

Overall, it doesn't look good if we take a look at state-by-state projections for high school graduates from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).  Florida, Nevada, Idaho, DC, Maryland, Texas, South Dakota, South Carolina, and Utah may see few if any future declines. But 20 states are expected to have additional enrollment loses of 10 percent or more.  Here's a list of the states that may be hardest hit in coming years.  

Source: WICHE

These enrollment declines are in addition to the enrollment declines of 2011-2023 that all of those states experienced.  

Enrollment declines after 2038 may also appear, a ripple effect of the Covid pandemic.  Other future headwinds include climate change, internal and external conflicts, and economic disruption.  Skepticism about the value of higher education has been growing for years.  Crushing student loan debt has also fueled this skepticism. 

With a few notable exceptions, enrollment losses have been restricted to community colleges, for-profit colleges, small private universities and regional public universities.  At the moment, it appears that more elite schools will not be affected, and may actually profit from the decline of other schools.  And as competition for good jobs increases, graduating from elite universities may carry more prestige value--at almost any price.  

*The Higher Education Inquirer would like to thank Nathan Grawe for his assistance in this article. 

Related links:

Many US States Have Seen Enrollment Drops of More Than 20 Percent (Glen McGhee and Dahn Shaulis)

US Department of Education Projects Increasing Higher Ed Enrollment From 2024-2030. Really? (Dahn Shaulis and Glen McGhee)

Projections Data from the 10th Edition of Knocking at the College Door (WICHE)

State Universities and the College Meltdown

Alaska is Leading the College Meltdown. Who's Next? 

College Meltdown: NY, IL, MI, PA, VA hardest hit 

Community Colleges at the Heart of College Meltdown

US Department of Education Fails to Recognize College Meltdown 


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