Saturday, August 19, 2023

Department of Education Fails (Again) to Modify Enrollment Projections (Dahn Shaulis and Glen McGhee)

For more than a decade, the US Department of Education (ED) has forecasted higher education enrollment numbers, projecting 10 years in advance. In 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics projected total enrollment to reach nearly 24 million students (23,834,000) a decade later.  But by 2021, the real numbers would already be five million fewer (18,659,851).

We can only guess what happened to enrollment numbers between 2021 and today, but it's doubtful they have increased.  The National Student Clearinghouse has reported lower numbers between 2021 and 2022, but they use different methods and do not engage in forecasting. 

In 2013, few could have predicted such a significant enrollment decline. The lag in getting up-to-date numbers from ED made it even more difficult to envision. We relied on more up-to-date numbers, though less complete, from the National Student Clearinghouse to understand what was happening. 

In 2014, with limited data, futurist Bryan Alexander asked Inside Higher Education readers Has Higher Education Peaked?  In fact, undergraduate higher education had peaked and began its steady decline in 2011.  Little was said from the higher education establishment for years. The slow but consistent downward trend, though, became more obvious with each year as the numbers came in.  

By 2017, Nathan Grawe predicted a 2026 enrollment cliff, a by-product of reduced birth rates in the 2008-2009 Great Recession.  This revelation made more people conscious of already declining enrollment numbers that started falling six years earlier. But the Department of Education did little to change their predictive formula. For several years, growing enrollment in online courses and graduate degrees kept total enrollment declines from appearing more dramatic.

In January 2018 we contacted the US Department of Education about these failures. According to William Hussar, the agency had already begun work on developing an alternative methodology for producing college projections, but that this would take years to implement. In the meantime, the numbers continued to drop, and polls showed fewer people having confidence in higher education.  Student loan debt may have been of little interest to most Americans, but it did sour tens of millions of debtors and their families. We suggested that behavioral economists might be needed to provide an alternative formula.

Today, the US Department of Education, despite some revisions in their most recent modeling, continues to forecast higher education enrollment gains--up to 2031-- despite mounting evidence it will decrease significantly (i.e. the "enrollment cliff"). We cannot expect online education, grad school participation, or even a faltering economy to prop up higher ed enrollment. Faith in higher education is waning-and for good reason. Despite propaganda from the higher ed industry, it's become a riskier bet for a growing number of the working class and middle class.

Related links:

US Department of Education Fails to Recognize College Meltdown

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

Enrollment cliff? What enrollment cliff? 

Projections of Education Statistics to 2028 (US Department of Education)

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