Higher ed enrollment falls by about 2%

Recovering economy a 'bigger factor' than high school population size

College enrollment fell 1.9% this year, but much of that came from community colleges and four-year, for-profit institutions, Ashley Smith reports for Inside Higher Ed.

New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that total 2015 spring enrollments are down to fewer than 18.6 million students—a drop from about 18.9 million last spring. Much of the decrease is comes from a decline in students older than 23—that cohort fell 3.6% in a year to just 7 million.

Overall enrollment declines for second year

"Since the bulk of decline is among the older students, that seems to support the idea that this is more about the economic recovery," says Jason DeWitt, the center's research manager. "We also know that for the past several years the number of high school graduates has been declining, so that's a factor as well. But the bigger factor is the economy."

Two-year college enrollment changes inversely with the economy, says Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges.

As the unemployment rate dropped to 5.4%, community college enrollment fell 3.9% since last spring.

The trend "is not surprising," says Bumphus. "Remembering that the majority of our students are working, it makes sense that robust job market would have an impact on enrollment," he says.

However, the community college sector continues to enroll nearly half of the nation's students.

Meanwhile, negative coverage and closures of for-profit institutions also contributed to the drop in overall enrollments—4.9% fewer students attend for-profits than did last year.

Over the same time period, student numbers at four-year, nonprofit private and public institutions remained steady at 3.6 million and 7.5 million respectively (Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 5/14).

The takeaway: As the economy improves, more non-traditional students return to the workforce—leading to a decrease in community college student numbers. While four-year nonprofit institutions saw enrollments hold steady, overall college enrollments dropped 1.9% from last spring.

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