For the second consecutive year in 2013, total enrollments at U.S. colleges fell because of a sharp drop in the two-year sector.
College enrollment declined 2.3% overall, falling about 2 million students to 19.5 million, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau. However, there was a split between four-year schools, which saw an enrollment gain of 1.2%, and two-year schools, where enrollment numbers dropped 9.6% to 5.27 million students.
Insight center: Academic and enrollment planning
The steady decline follows a five-year surge in enrollment from 2006 to 2011, says Kurt Bauman, chief of the bureau's Education and Social Stratification Branch. Bauman says it's likely that the recovery from the Great Recession that began in 2008 is behind the trend change, although the smaller population of graduating high school students also plays a part.
"There's some research that associates economic hard times with growth in college enrollment," says Bauman.
Ups and downs of the economy affect community colleges more significantly than they do for larger, four-year universities, says Mary McCue, Terra State Community College spokeswoman.
Since the recession recovery began, community colleges have seen their enrollments drop, says David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. The number of students rose 22% from 2007 to 2010, and then fell nearly 7% from then through 2013.
The two-year institutions see more students enrolling when the economy tanks because people seek out training to make themselves more marketable. But when the economy rebounds, people are more likely to work than enroll in school. For example, in Ohio, community college enrollment fell 18.5% in the past five years.
The economy can also affect where prospective students choose to enroll. In times of a healthy economy, parents may be willing to send students farther away, says Mark Fegley, Ohio State University-Newark's interim director of admissions. But, when times are tough, more students live at home and commute to school.
"If students decide they want to stay local, they want to save money, that's a good thing for us," he says.
Methods to forecast enrollment at community colleges
Most schools expected this drop, says Jeff Robinson, Ohio Board of Regents spokesman. "They plan[ned] for it in budgets and work around those drops," he says, though this year, "[For some] the dip was a little more than they planned" (Balmert, Newark Advocate, 11/22; Lauerman, Bloomberg, 9/24).
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