College Enrollment Continues 8-Year Slide

College enrollment dipped again this spring, according to data published yesterday (May 30) by the National Student Clearinghouse. It’s the eighth year in a row enrollment at U.S. colleges has decreased, albeit at a slower rate (1.7%) compared to last year (1.8%). The Clearinghouse Research Center reports enrollment data every December and May. This spring’s 1.7% drop accounts for about 300,000 students and brings total college enrollment to just over 17.5 million. The data represents 97% of the country’s Title IV degree-granting institutions.

Declines were not equal across types of institutions. For example, four-year for-profit universities saw enrollment plunge by 19.7% while four-year public schools saw a decrease of just .9%. Four-year private nonprofit institutions actually saw an increase of 3.2%, but according to the Clearinghouse’s report, that was due to a large for-profit institution turning to nonprofit status. And two-year public colleges dropped by 3.4%.

While both full-time and part-time college enrollment has decreased, part-time enrollment has dropped more overall. Across all sectors of institutions, full-time enrollment has dropped by just 1% while part-time has decreased by 2.7%. However, like the overall enrollment, different institutions are experiencing different trends. For example, for four-year public institutions, full-time enrollment has dropped .7% while part-time has declined 1.3%. But for four-year for-profit and two-year public institutes, full-time rates have dropped more so than part-time. At four-year for-profit colleges, full-time enrollment fell 21.8% versus 16% for part-time students. Two-year public universities had smaller drops at -4.7% for full-time and -2.6% for part-time.

In terms of age, traditional college students (18- to 24-years-old) have declined in enrollments more than those under 18 and above 24. Enrollment has actually climbed for students under 18 by 1.6% across all sectors. Meanwhile, it has dropped for 18- to 24-year-olds by 2.4% and .8% for students above 24.

Men are enrolling less in college compared to women, the data shows, widening the gender gap of college educated people. Across all sectors, male enrollment dropped by 2.8%, while female enrollment dropped just .8%. Currently, the Clearinghouse data says, a little more than 7.3 million men are enrolled in college compared to nearly 10.2 million women currently enrolled in a higher education institution. The widest gap among sectors is in four-year public universities where almost one million more women are enrolled. Interestingly, this is the first year since before 2017 that female enrollment has dropped at four-year public universities. In spring 2017, women enrolled .7% more than spring 2016 and in spring 2018, the enrollment increased by .2%. Meanwhile, the rate at which men are enrolling less has only increased from -.3% in 2017 to -.6% in 2018 to 1.7% this year.

Perhaps more concerning for higher education institutions is the upcoming decline in college-aged students in the U.S. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. birth-rate peaked at 4.32 million births in 2007 and has dropped consistently since then to 3.79 million in 2018. Meaning, starting in 2025, the population of 18-year-olds in the country will begin decreasing, naturally making the college enrollment smaller.


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