Recession Reshaped College Enrollment Patterns, but the Sky Didn't Fall

July 14, 2011

As the recession's grip tightened during the summer of 2008, dire predictions swirled on campuses everywhere. Enrollment chiefs huddled with presidents and trustees, bracing for an era of heightened uncertainty. They worried that the number of applicants would dwindle and the number of dropouts would surge.

Three years later, many are still trying to understand how the economy has changed the enrollment landscape. A storm has hit, for sure. But what's the damage?

Not as severe as various forecasters had feared, according to a report released today by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The findings suggest that the recession's effect on college enrollment—among traditional-age, first-time students—was mild. Over all, enrollments of new students rose to 2.135 million in 2010, up from 1.997 million in 2006, an increase of 6.8 percent. The sharpest one-year jump, in 2009, followed the recession's onset by a couple of years; 2010 brought a slight decline, with two-year colleges accounting for most of the dip.

Enrollments of new students at four-year colleges remained relatively stable. Public institutions, many bursting at the seams and operating on slashed budgets, saw modest increases in all but one year. Private colleges appear to have maintained their "market share" despite the many grave predictions about their ability to keep up their enrollments.

"The news of our demise is greatly exaggerated," Don Hossler, the center's executive director and a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington, says of four-year institutions in general. "I was expecting more dramatic data, and thus far, the changes are not that dramatic."

Where Students Go, and How

Nonetheless, the report illuminates emerging trends in the college-going patterns of recent high-school graduates. A major story line of the past five years has been the increase in traditional-age students who enrolled in community colleges. In 2006, 41.7 percent of traditional-age students enrolled at two-year colleges; in 2009, 44.5 percent did so. Between 2008 and 2009, enrollments of traditional-age, first-time students at two-year colleges increased by 8.3 percent.

The report suggests that this trend was driven by two groups of students: those who, in a better economy, might have chosen to attend other (and costlier) types of institutions, and those who otherwise would have joined the work force after graduating from high school.

Mr. Hossler suspects that the recent surge also resulted from the strategies, such as highly focused marketing, that community colleges used to attract younger students. In turn, the 5.1-percent decline in the number of traditional-age students entering community colleges in 2010 may well reflect the capacity strains at those institutions, as well as signs of economic recovery.

The new report, "National Postsecondary Enrollment Trends: Before, During, and After the Great Recession," examines the cohorts of students who enrolled in colleges between the fall of 2006 and the fall of 2010, providing a unique and timely snapshot of where—and how—students are going to college. The report is the first in a series of analyses that the organization plans to release in the coming months.

The National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit group, collects data from colleges several times a year, on a voluntary basis. Its vast database comprises "student level" data, and provides an unduplicated headcount of students, both full time and part time, enrolled at participating colleges. (By contrast, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, maintained by the National Center for Educational Statistics, contains institutional-level data that cannot distinguish if students are enrolled in multiple institutions in a year or, if they transfer permanently, where they go.) In other words, the National Student Clearinghouse—which tracks 93 percent of enrollments at all postsecondary institutions—is able to develop a clearer picture of the various paths individual students take through higher education.

This is especially important at a time when student "mobility" is becoming more and more common. Adult students aren't the only ones who may transfer to another college or study at multiple institutions to earn a degree; many recent high-school graduates are doing the same.

Given that fact, the authors of the report explored the distinction between retention (a student's continuing enrollment at the same college) and persistence (a student's continuing enrollment in any college). First- to second-year persistence rates, they found, were about 13 percentage points higher than retention rates across cohorts of students who enrolled between 2006 and 2009. This finding, the authors wrote, affirms that "much research based on retention measures ... underestimates the number of students who continue in higher education." Moreover, they found that community colleges had the greatest gaps between retention and persistence rates.

Despite the handwringing about retention in an era of financial crisis, the recession seems to have done little to prevent students from staying enrolled beyond their first year. The report did not reveal significant drops in retention rates over all, as one would have expected to see if large numbers of students had transferred to lower-cost institutions. Persistence rates, too, held steady.

Regional Enrollment Patterns

The report also examined enrollment patterns in different regions. Over all, colleges in the South enrolled the greatest number of first-time students, followed by the Midwest, the West, and the Northeast. From 2006 to 2009, most of the increase happened in the South and the West, and the two regions saw nearly all of the decline in 2010. The two regions enrolled larger proportions of part-time students. The report speculates that as California and other nearby states "experienced economic hardship before states in other regions, students in Western states may also have felt the impact earlier—and perhaps to a greater degree."

Mr. Hossler cautions that the report does not reveal the many winners and losers in the recession-era enrollment picture. After all, even the best data do not capture the why of enrollment outcomes. Some institutions have maintained their enrollments by raising their discount rates to unsustainable levels or by rushing to use more-sophisticated enrollment-management techniques, such as assessing applicants' likelihood of attending. Others, it seems, have coasted on their prestige.

Although Mr. Hossler describes many of the findings as encouraging, he suggests that the recession's effects on college choices and educational paths may yet take years to fully emerge. High-school sophomores in 2008, Mr. Hossler muses, may have already formed a "psychic connection" with a particular college, or a specific type of college, that cemented their enrollment decisions. But what about eighth graders, especially those whose parents did not attend college: How might the stagnant economy alter their thinking about college?

"It may be a little early to get complacent," he says.