What’s Behind the Drop in College Enrollment?

New data indicates colleges recorded a record drop in enrollment last year. We take a look at factors driving the decline.
by | September 4, 2013 AT 1:00 PM
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New Census Bureau estimates published Tuesday point to a record drop in college enrollment after years of steady growth.

Total enrollment dipped 467,000 last year, about a 2.3 percent decline from 2011. While it might not seem high, the number represents a significant reversal: It’s the largest year-over-year decline since the Census Bureau began estimating enrollment in 1955.

So what’s to explain the sudden drop?

The census data illustrates several underlying demographic trends in college enrollment, a few of which we’ll examine.

One of clearest recent shifts occurring is that older students appear to be enrolling at lower rates than in years past.

Enrollment declined 6.2 percent for the age 25-to-34 group and decreased 4.5 percent for those 35 years and older from 2011-2012. At the same time, about 113,000 more people in their prime college years (ages 20 to 24) took classes last fall.

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Conventional wisdom suggests some of these individuals are returning to the workforce as the economy slowly recovers. Jobless or underemployed workers sought to bolster their resumes when the recession hit, so they’ve now either completed school or are finding jobs.

The following chart shows the age group makeup of all students nationwide for both undergraduate and graduate schools:


Of course, the population of college-age adults acts as a major driver in pushing enrollment up or down. Accordingly, the number of Americans turning 18 each year is projected to slowly decline after peaking in 2009.

The Census Bureau’s estimates of annual high school enrollment fluctuated in recent years. Last year, the count rose 434,000 nationwide from 2011. At just over 17 million, it’s about on par with 2007 levels.

The data also shows enrollment among various racial and ethnic groups heading in opposite directions.

Over the year, total white non-Hispanic college enrollment fell more than 8 percent. Meanwhile, two rapidly growing groups – Hispanics and Asians – recorded notable gains. Enrollment among Hispanics rose 447,000 from 2011, about a 15 percent increase, while Asian enrollment jumped more than 20 percent.

Up until last year, enrollment for both public and private institutions climbed at similar rates over several decades. Both experienced aggregate enrollment declines of about 2 percent last year, according to census estimates.

Public institutions account for about three-quarters of total college enrollment.

Here’s a chart showing public and private enrollment since 1955:

It’s also worth noting that rising tuition costs have for put college out of reach for some families.

For this, the National Center for Education Statistics compiles the best data, showing ballooning costs for both public and private schools. The center's most recent figures indicate colleges hiked combined tuition, room and board rates a staggering 35 percent (adjusting for inflation) between the 2000-2001 and 2010-2011 school years.

While the new data could signal a tipping point in college enrollment, recent declines only occurred over a single year. So we’ll have to wait and see the extent to which drops in enrollment continue as the economy improves.