By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.
In January, I highlighted two stories that I thought told an under-reported and not entirely accepted education reality – that despite all that’s been thrown at them in recent years, America’s colleges and universities are not on the verge of irrelevancy or collapse.
Sure, many people keep saying they are. But there’s plenty of recent evidence to the contrary.
One of those January stories was that according to our best and biggest data source, college applications for the fall of 2023 were up a whopping 20% over pre-pandemic numbers. The other story was that college CFOs are “overwhelmingly positive” about the financial stability of their institutions over the next few years. Specifically, a jaw-dropping 89% of them said they are confident in their college’s financial stability.
Then, just a few weeks ago, college enrollment numbers were released showing that, for this past fall, enrollment of freshmen was up a significant 4.3%. At community colleges, it was up 6.1%.
Alone, that’s a very big deal.
In the current zeitgeist, that’s heresy.
But the big deal first – an enrollment boost among freshmen is important because they’re tuition and income generators for the next four years, give or take. That four year window is well within the widely predicted enrollment declines that schools are expected to face due to demographic changes – fewer newly college-age students, to be precise.
If this new upward nudge among freshmen turns out to be a one-and-done blip, the bad news is that schools could be facing a double-hit. One hit as those freshmen leave and the other as the demographic cliff, as it’s called, starts to really bite. On the other hand, schools know this demographic change is coming. They also know it’s really expected to be more of demographic gentle valley than a cliff. So, if they plan accordingly, this freshmen tuition bump is coming at just the right time to save, make cuts or wise investments.
The increase is also a big deal because schools took big enrollment hits during the pandemic, as the college experience became degraded by universal online tests, courses and programs. Students voted with their feet, as the phrase goes, opting to skip or delay college. That was widely reported, though few of the reports drew the obvious connection to the shift to online learning itself.
Either way, a big open question was whether some of the students who decided to pass on Zoom-U would return or start their college careers once college became more normal again – whether there would be a post-covid enrollment bounce. Based on this data, and especially when coupled with the college application data, the answer seems to be yes. That’s big.
It’s especially important that community colleges saw an above average gain – up more than 6% in freshmen enrollment. That’s because our community colleges suffered the sharpest enrollment declines during the pandemic. In two years, the sector lost nearly one million enrollees. That incoming classes are growing again, though still down overall, is some very needed oxygen. And if the bump continues into next year, which the applications numbers suggest may happen, community colleges may actually be able to take a full breath.
The enrollment increases aren’t all good news. For-profit colleges saw an inexplicable boost in enrollments this year too, up 2.6%. That’s not good and probably heavily linked to their outsized marketing and ad budgets.
The bigger issue may be that the story we’re repeatedly being told about higher education’s fortunes is just wrong.
It feels like every day another story is written and published asking whether college, a college education and a college degree is “worth it.” It is. Only to be immediately followed two other stories predicting college closures, realignments and market collapse, which manifestly is not happening. Even though it’s been an article of faith to so many for so long, widespread college closures are not happening.
There will be the odd college closure. Though most of those tend to be driven by scandal or misconduct instead of the massive collapse in value so widely expected.
And, if you’re really paying attention, most of the schools that do close are either for-profit, online schools or affiliated with churches or religious groups. The lion’s share – the public schools, community colleges, the private non-profit colleges – by and large are just fine. That ought to be news.
For now, we’ll settle for the enrollment gains being news. It is. Good and big news.