Enrollment Drops 0.8% Over All, but Edges Up at Private 4-Year Colleges

May 15, 2014

Enrollment at American colleges dipped this spring for the third year in a row as older students returned to an improving job market, but private four-year colleges bucked the trend with a slight uptick in their numbers, according to a report released on Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Over all, enrollment was down 0.8 percent this spring, compared with last spring, far less than the 2.3-percent decline over the previous one-year period.

The steepest drop, at 4.9 percent, occurred at four-year for-profit colleges, while enrollment at two-year public colleges fell by 2.7 percent. Enrollment inched up by 0.7 percent at four-year public institutions and by 2 percent at four-year private nonprofit colleges.

The report breaks down enrollment trends by sector, gender, age, and part-time versus full-time status. It covers 96 percent of enrollment at degree-granting colleges that receive federal student aid.

Enrollment Trends by Sector, Spring 2013 to Spring 2014
  Total enrollment,
all sectors
Four-year public Four-year private nonprofit Four-year for-profit Two-year public
Spring 2014 18,948,521 7,363,599 3,694,299 1,280,716 6,179,033
Spring 2013 19,105,651 7,312,261 3,620,640 1,347,238 6,351,609
% change -0.80% 0.70% 2.00% -4.90% -2.70%
Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


Most of the declines were for students over age 24, whose numbers fell by nearly 6 percent at community colleges this spring.

"Some of the older students seem to have been lured back by an improving job market," said the center’s research manager, Jason DeWitt.

Across all sectors, enrollment among students age 24 and under crept up by 0.7 percent after declining steadily over the past year and a half.

"The increase in younger students is especially notable in light of expected declines in the size of high-school graduating classes," Mr. DeWitt said.

Doug Shapiro, executive research director at the center, said that could be "an early indicator that the demand for college degrees among young adults is resuming its historic growth trend."

A Welcome Change

Enrollment declined in 37 states and increased in 13, with the biggest jumps in Oregon, at 5.2 percent, and New Hampshire, at 15.5 percent. Most of New Hampshire’s surge stemmed from rising online enrollment, most notably at Southern New Hampshire University’s rapidly growing online college, according to Edward R. MacKay, director of the Division of Higher Education in the state’s Department of Education. He was one of several experts who viewed an advance copy of the report.

The 4.9-percent drop at for-profit colleges was an improvement over last fall’s 9.7-percent decline, which was largely due to intense scrutiny of the sector. Noah Black, a spokesman for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the for-profit sector’s main trade group, said its colleges had improved retention and done a better job of aligning their programs with employers’ needs. Nevertheless, he said, "many people are still hesitant to enroll given the uncertainty in the economy."

The uptick at four-year private colleges was a welcome change, given the demographic challenges and constrained budgets they are facing. Donald R. Hossler, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University at Bloomington and founding director of the center, said he wasn’t surprised that those colleges had fared relatively well because of their strong retention rates.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, agreed with Mr. Hossler that tuition discounting, which some fear is reaching unsustainable rates, was probably also a factor in encouraging budget-conscious students to enroll.

"I’d like to think that the message about the value of a private liberal-arts education is getting through, especially when students consider the longer time it takes to earn a degree" from other colleges, Mr. Ekman added.

Enrollment declines across all sectors were slightly higher for women and part-time students.