Is college enrollment on the verge of rebounding?

Experts credit better job market, college preparation initiatives

The rate of high school seniors going directly to college grew for the first time in four years in 2014, Lydia DePillis reports for Washington Post's "Wonkblog."

In 2009, the rates began to slide. Some speculate taking on student loans seemed risky while the job market suffered or because the idea of higher education as a road to the middle class was waning.

But newly released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the percentage of the class of 2014's 2.9 million students entering two- or four-year colleges right after high school graduation increased to 68.4%, a slight jump from 2013's 65.9%.

Labor Department officials say to wait a few years before declaring this growth a trend because the data can be noisy—but the department's economists say there are reasons to believe it is one.

Now, gainfully employed parents may be able to help pay tuition and fees, and students themselves may be able to work their way through school. Ninety percent of students in the data set enrolled full-time, and 44.7% of those also participated in the labor force.

Recession led to an enrollment boom, but not a graduation boom

Better college preparation also contributes to the increase, says David Hawkins, executive director for education policy at the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, pointing to the Obama's College Opportunity and Reach Higher plans.

"It's possible that academic improvements in K-12 education, including a substantial movement to improve college readiness and access, could have had some effect," he says.

Both BLS economists and Hawkins say earlier enrollment declines likely represented a short setback in the greater trend toward more college access. The Department of Education predicts enrollments will grow 13.9% between 2012 and 2022—even though the number of U.S. residents ages 18 to 24 will fall by 4% (DePillis, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 4/21).

The takeaway: The percentage of high school students going directly to college increased in 2014—the first rate growth for the first time in four years.

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