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The Market Is Speaking: College Enrollment Increased Last Fall

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission

Put that college apocalypse on hold. Again.

Despite loads of downward prognosticating and some downright cheering for the collapse of higher education in America, it may be a little farther off yet. If it comes at all.

If you read the hyperbolic headlines, Americans are losing faith in college. And some are. But the reasons very likely have little at all to do with college.

People are also supposedly reconsidering college because short term education credentials are better, faster and less expensive – as evidenced by big companies waiving degree requirements for entry-level jobs. Though the truth is that, even though companies are making a big deal of hiring people without a traditional degree, they’re still overwhelmingly hiring degree holders, as this excellent offering from journalist Paul Fain highlights. “The hype around companies dropping degree requirements in hiring does not appear to be translating into widespread action,” Fain wrote.

The bold is his.

In fact, Fain says, the trend may be going the other way. Increasingly, jobs are asking for graduate degrees.

Then there’s the questionable college closure crisis – a set of largely disconnected events that is simultaneously misleading and misunderstood. Yes, some colleges are closing. No, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But more importantly, the colleges that have been closing have been mostly tiny and mostly religious colleges, a quantifiable trend absolutely no one is mentioning.

As I wrote back in September, more than half of the colleges that have closed since 2020 “were religious schools – bible colleges, seminary schools, catholic schools. In total, 25 of the 45 had official religious affiliations or were actually run by religious organizations. That’s 56%.”

Since more than half of all college closures are of religious schools, the real driver of college closure is likely just as much a decline in religion as it is a referendum on college.

Then after all that, the sky-is-falling crowd points to the inevitability of demographics. They say that a decline in birth rates after the 2008 recession will drain the pool of first-time college age students, limiting enrollments and finally squeezing the life out of colleges. That, they say, will start to tighten its grip next year and last a good eight years, maybe ten.

The decline in college-age freshmen is real. It’s math. But it’s far from a sure thing that a dip in 18-year-old, college-eligible freshmen will translate to declines in college enrollments. For one, the country has faced demographic declines like this one before, each time replacing lost students with new ones – women and working adults most recently. Two, the depth of the demographic drop is uncertain. Some sources have quietly revised their estimates downward, to conditions less dramatic than previously estimated.

Another factor that may mitigate the coming contraction is that, inexplicably, the global destination education experiences of the U.K., Australia, and Canada have started to clamp down on foreign college students – offering excellent growth opportunities for American alternatives.

Then there’s the math on the other side of the enrollment formula to consider. According to an announcement this week from the National Student Clearinghouse, our agreed-upon source of enrollment data, college enrollment increased this past fall. Yes, it increased.

That’s remarkable since people are losing faith in college and since companies are moving away from degrees and since colleges are closing everywhere and all that. Turns out, compared to last year, more people want the products that higher education is offering. The market is speaking.

According to the Clearinghouse, “Undergraduate enrollment grew 1.2 percent (+176,000) in fall 2023.” That may not seem like a ton, but it is. For comparison, the demographic contraction that’s expected in about 2026 is forecast to be a dip of about 12% over ten years, give or take. That’s about 1.2% annually. In other words, the uptick reported this week knocks a full year off the length of the trough that’s coming. That’s great news.

The better news is that enrollment growth was even stronger among community colleges, which were absolutely bludgeoned during the pandemic. The new data show that, “among the three largest sectors, growth was highest at community colleges, which gained 118,000 students (+2.6%).” That’s good not just for community colleges but for the four-year colleges that will pick up some of those new matriculators in two years or so. It’s also good because community colleges are magnets for older workforce participants returning to school – exactly the population you’d want to pull if you’re trying to offset projected declines with young freshmen.

The Clearinghouse says that public and non-profit private schools saw enrollment gains too. And that two-thirds of states were net positive in enrollment. Again, great news.

Unfortunately, enrollment is also growing at investor-backed for-profit schools. Though their collective piece of the education pie has shrunk so far so fast that if a single chartered tourist bus accidentally unloaded at a for-profit college, you could see it in the data. For-profit colleges, the Clearinghouse reports, now enroll only about 600,000 students. Public four-year colleges enroll more than ten times that number, surpassing 6.1 million students.

At a higher level, the total enrollment bump is important because experts and analysts were not deeply worried that American colleges could not survive an enrollment drop of 12% over a decade, they were worried that such a drop, on the heels of a palpable pullback during the pandemic would be, could be, a different matter.

That concern is fading. If the current trend holds for another year, many schools will be back to their pre-pandemic enrollment numbers, some have already surpassed them.

Either way, students are increasingly going to college. That’s not conjecture, it’s an actual indicator of the health and value of American colleges. And it’s outstanding news.

Originally posted on Forbes January 25, 2024