by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Rob Jenkins writes for the Martin Center about future enrollment challenges for colleges and universities.
Nationwide, higher education enrollment has been trending down for several years. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2019 was the eighth straight year of decline, with an overall drop of nearly 10 percent since 2011.
The reasons for this are many, including political, economic, and social factors. But the main one is demographic: Fewer students are graduating from high schools—not because graduation rates are down, but because birth rates fell by about 4 percent from 1990 to 2001.
Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse. The number of live births in this country began another steep decline in 2008 following the Great Recession—one that is still ongoing. As a graph created by the National Center for Health Statistics and published in Bloomberg clearly illustrates, 2018 saw 12 percent fewer births than 2007, with no rebound in sight.
All of this means that, while college enrollments might fluctuate somewhat over the next several years, in 2026—when the children born in 2008 and after begin reaching college-age—enrollments will plunge.
As The Chronicle of Higher Education points out, and the Bloomberg article affirms, “The Great Enrollment Crash” will disproportionately affect community colleges, mid-sized regional universities, and small liberal arts colleges, twenty of which have closed their doors just since 2016. The well-endowed, elite privates will no doubt be just fine, as will large state flagships, with their popular football teams and waiting lists. But many smaller schools will be hurting—and more will probably join the “defunct” list.
The challenge for those institutions, then, is to devise a plan for surviving the crash.