Where Are Prospective College Students Going?

A demographic cliff, economic downturn, pandemic and perceived lack of value are contributing to decreased higher ed enrollment numbers, but the students must be going somewhere.

6 minutes
By: Aila Boyd
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With a looming demographic cliff and economic downturn that will surely decrease numbers further, higher ed institutions are wondering where current prospective students are being lost along the education pipeline.

The continued enrollment decline has many in higher education asking the question: Where are the prospective students going?

Demographics 

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the number of high school graduates is actually up, compared to 10 years ago, with 3.4 million graduates in 2011-12 and 3.6 million graduates in 2021-22.

Don Hossler, provost and Sonneborn Professor Emeritus in the School of Education at Indiana University Bloomington, has been looking at the question of demographics quite closely. 

“In the last four or five years, there have been more high school graduates but that’s not because there were more students. Rather, the students that were in the pipeline to graduate, a greater percentage of them graduated,” he explained. 

Hossler said that students who are less likely to graduate but do end up graduating have attributes that indicate that they aren’t likely to go to a four-year college and are more likely to go to a community college, including “more likely to be low-income, more likely to be first generation” and “more likely to have a single parent.” 

It is also doubtful that prospective students are opting for the military, given that 77% of college-aged young people do not qualify for military service, according to the Council For a Strong America. 

As a result of their backgrounds, these graduates are more sensitive to the loss of the potential wages they could be earning while in school. 

Tight Labor Market

The unemployment rate in October was 3.7%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Tolani Britton, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California Berkeley, believes greater labor force participation is more of a factor. She cited the “really strong” labor market, paired with the fact that both wages and prices are high as reasons why recent high school graduates might not be immediately enrolling in college. 

“Because they’re seeing higher prices, recent high school graduates are particularly more likely to go to work as opposed to college,” she explained. 

A general sense of uncertainty, she said, is also to blame.

“This is the first pandemic I’ve lived through. This is certainly the first pandemic that high school graduates have lived through. There has just been a lot of upheaval in families with deaths, illness, long COVID,” she explained. “My sense is that the uncertainty makes it really hard to plan for a four-year degree.” 

Enrollment Decline

College enrollment has been on the decline for some time. Research published last month from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates the enrollment drop is continuing, with undergraduate enrollment declining by 1.1% this fall compared to fall 2021. 

According to the clearinghouse report, all institutions, including public four-year schools, private nonprofit schools, private for-profit schools and community colleges, saw enrollment declines. 

Since 2020, there has been a total two-year 3.2% decline in undergraduate and graduate enrollment. Despite the decline, the pace has slowed compared to the last two years.

“After two straight years of historically large losses, it is particularly troubling that numbers are still falling, especially among freshmen,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said when the research was released in mid-October. “Although the decline has slowed and there are some bright spots, a path back to pre-pandemic enrollment levels is growing further out of reach.”

“We know that the demographic cliff is supposed to hit around 2025, 2026, where there’s going to be a substantial decline in the number of high school students,” Hossler said. 

In comparing fall 2012 and fall 2021 enrollment figures (approximately 20 million and 17 million, respectively), enrollment was already down by nearly 3 million students.

Chart prepared by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Source https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed/

Community Colleges

Community colleges only experienced a slight enrollment decrease, 0.4%, compared to last fall, aided by an increase in dual enrollment high schoolers. 

“Ambivalence about the value of for-profit and public universities may be giving community colleges and vocational programs an edge when it comes to perceived value,” a survey conducted in August by the research firm Morning Consult found. “Among those who said they expect to apply for student loans in the next 10 years, 78% said community and two-year colleges were a good value, while 75% said the same about vocational and professional certification programs.”

Based on enrollment data, Britton doesn’t think the enrollment declines four-year colleges are facing can be attributed to students simply opting for two-year schools instead. 

“It doesn’t seem to suggest at all that students are opting for two-year instead of four-year college,” she said. 

Hossler noted that because community college enrollment has also declined, the impacts will continue to be felt downstream. 

“There’s going to be a reverberation effect on four-year colleges. If there are fewer kids at community colleges, there are also going to be fewer kids that are going to be transferring to four-year schools,” he said. 

The Value of a College Education 

A high number of prospective students seem to view the idea of community colleges and vocational options more favorably in terms of potential value. 

The Morning Consult survey found that 52% of respondents thought that an undergraduate education at in-state public universities was a good value, with 40% feeling the same about out-of-state public universities and not-for-profit private universities. 

Britton said that discourse around the value of college predates the COVID-19 pandemic but has certainly grown louder in recent years. She also noted that prospective low-income or first-generation students simply may not have the resources to afford an education at this time due to lasting impacts from the pandemic. 

“The family resources that might have gone to college were likely used up for the passing of a family member or health issues within families,” she said. “We know college is a pretty expensive proposition in general.” 

Although some of the factors that have contributed to decreased enrollment are largely out of the hands of admissions leaders, Ozan Jaquette, an associate professor of higher education in the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, said this particular issue is not. 

“Concern about value is a tough thing to move but that can change with good PR and good federal policy,” he said. 

Roanoke College, a private liberal arts school in Salem, Virginia, factors in questions about return on investment into its admissions sales pitch. 

“We talk about the lifetime earnings of a four-year college graduate versus a two-year versus no college experience,” said Brenda Poggendorf, Roanoke College’s vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid.

The Future

Even though the pandemic isn’t as disruptive now as it has been over the past few years, Jaquette anticipates its effects will continue to be felt in higher education.

He said, “COVID had a negative effect on academic achievement, and K12 schools more generally. I would imagine that would reverberate in terms of negatively affecting college enrollment for years, maybe more than a decade.”

Another looming factor that could impact higher education enrollment across the board is the prospect of an economic downturn. 

Britton noted that what form the downturn takes and how long it lasts will dictate whether college enrollment is nudged upward. 

“When there is an economic downturn, and in particular recessions, younger people and older people are more likely to go back to college,” she said. 

Britton added that because prospective students are not giving up potential wages in a recession means that college seems like a better bet, especially if they can obtain financial aid. 

“When people are laid off, they go back to upskill and learn new skills that will make them marketable,” she said. 

Jaquette agreed, noting that college is often viewed as a “safe port in a storm” during periods of economic uncertainty. 

Both Hossler and Britton noted that non-elite colleges and universities are the ones that are bearing the brunt of the enrollment decline. 

“The only sector that has experienced enrollment growth has been somewhere between very selective and highly selective privates and selective publics/flagships,” Hossler said. “Those schools have really been growing at the expense of all the other schools.”

He noted that Indiana University Bloomington admitted approximately 2,000 more students this fall than it did in fall 2019.

Britton explained that colleges are placing a greater emphasis on retaining what students they do have by being proactive with outreach and making sure they are meeting the students’ needs. 

Some of those schools, Britton added, have also started reaching out more to students who started college but didn’t finish. 

“They’re working to bring back students that have clearly demonstrated an interest in higher education, have invested in their higher education but for some reason were not necessarily able to complete it,” she explained. 

Reevaluating what college looks like by way of increased accessibility is something else higher education leaders are looking at, she noted. 

“They’re looking at flexibility and how to meet the needs of student-parents,” she said. 

Roanoke College admitted two freshman classes during the pandemic that were smaller than normal, the result of which has been that the college’s overall enrollment has dropped. However, this year’s freshman class increased by more than 30 students, bringing college-wide fall enrollment to 1,826.

Even with the looming cliff, Poggendorf is hopeful about next year’s freshman class as applications have gone up. The college is also building pipeline programs, including robust campus visits, with local middle and high schools. 

“There’s about 30% of students who graduate from high school that aren’t thinking about going to college,” she said. “We’re thinking about how we can get to them sooner and help them understand the value of a post-secondary education. It’s sad when a student gets to the end of their high school experience and all of a sudden something turns them on to college, but they haven’t done the preparation.”

Aila Boyd

Aila Boyd

Reporter

Aila Boyd is a Virginia-based journalist and educator. As a journalist, she has written for and edited daily and weekly newspapers and magazines. She has taught English at a number of colleges and universities and holds an MFA in writing

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