WORCESTER, Mass. — Only bird songs penetrate the silence on the neatly tended but deserted grounds of Becker College.
A sign on the registrar’s office gives a web address for students who need their transcripts; another, on the locked door of the bookstore, advertises half-off keychains, drinkware, apparel and anything else with the Becker logo.
“All must go,” it says.
The college, which traces its origins to 1784, held its last-ever commencement this spring after a steady erosion of enrollment. The number of full-time undergraduates fell by 21 percent in the last five years, to 1,250 this year. Even attracting that many required giving every entering freshman a discount from the advertised tuition, federal data reveal.
Becker’s trustees blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for accelerating this decline; some students who were accepted never showed up, took leaves of absence, dropped out or decided not to live on campus.
But focusing only on the effects of Covid on enrollment obscures that a demographic downturn has already been squeezing colleges and universities for a decade during which the number of students has declined by an unprecedented 2.6 million, or 13 percent.
Because of a falloff in the number of births during the last recession, another drop of from 11 to 15 percent is projected beginning in the mid-2020s in the number of prospective college students graduating from high schools.
Now grim new birthrate data reflecting conceptions that mostly preceded the pandemic adds to the dire predictions — and worse may be ahead, according to early signs of an even sharper drop since then in people having children.
This means any hope of a rebound is fading.
“The bounce-back isn’t coming, or it’s certainly not going to be coming for a long time,” said Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
That’s more bad news for colleges, some of which will continue to struggle to stay afloat; mergers and downsizing of public universities already have been proposed in states including Pennsylvania.
“I typically don’t look at it from a doom-and-gloom point of view, but it’s just basic math” that more campuses will close, said Rob Sentz, chief innovation officer at the labor market analytics firm EMSI and coauthor of a report about the looming demographic cliff he calls a “sansdemic,” as in a crisis resulting from an absence of people.
The number of college students has declined by an unprecedented 2.6 million in the last decade, with a further drop of from 11 to 15 percent projected starting in the mid-2020s.
But there are indications that the depth of their predicament is also finally prompting colleges and universities to make structural changes critics contend are long overdue, which could flatten or lower students’ costs, reduce dropout rates, better connect their academic offerings to workplace demand, make it easier to transfer and adapt to the needs of older adults and other untapped markets.
Undergraduate tuition and fees in the fall already rose by the lowest percentage in three decades, according to The College Board, and many colleges and universities have announced tuition freezes or reductions for the next academic year.
“There’s definitely pricing pressure out there on colleges both public and private,” said Kent Rinehart, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Marist College.
Among those keeping undergraduate tuition level next year are the universities of Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia; University of the Ozarks and William & Mary and Wabash colleges; American, Arizona State, Auburn, Augustana, Butler, Clemson, Marquette, Northern Arizona, Old Dominion, Purdue, Radford and Texas Christian universities; and the California and Georgia state university systems.
In a few of those cases the freeze applies only to in-state students. But some public universities in the Midwest and Northeast, where the enrollment problems are worst, are also trying to lure out-of-state students by charging them lower in-state tuition.
Thirty-four percent of women said they have delayed childbearing during the pandemic or would have fewer children, and almost half of adults said they were having less sex. Both mean fewer students starting college 18 years from now.
A few institutions are not only holding costs steady, but reducing them. Rider University is cutting its undergraduate tuition for new students by a fifth, to $35,000; Fairleigh Dickinson, by as much as a quarter, to $32,000, on its campuses in New Jersey. The University of Akron is lowering the cost of housing by 30 percent.
Universities doing this say they’re “creating greater access and opportunity,” as Fairleigh Dickinson put it, or moving to “strengthen educational value,” according to Rider. But they’re also bowing to a basic law of economics: Prices fall when demand declines.
And while the most elite institutions boasted record numbers of applications this year, demand overall keeps sliding for the rest.
Enrollment has been declining every year since 2011, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, from more than 20 million then to just under 17.5 million this year. Not even a slight increase in the proportion of high school graduates going straight to college, which rose from 63 percent in 2000 to 69 percent by 2018, has been enough to slow this drop.
Because people had fewer children during the last recession in 2008, the number of 18-year-olds graduating from high school is expected to fall again nationally after 2025 by 11 to 15 percent, according to estimates by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE, and Carleton College economist Nathan Grawe.
Now new federal data show that the number of births continues to decline, down by 142,000 or 4 percent last year to the lowest point since 1979.
“It’s absolutely bad news,” said Patrick Lane, vice president of WICHE’s policy analysis and research unit. “It’s a bigger decline than was expected. It’s also preliminary, and what everybody is worried about is this year’s birth numbers.”
Those are likely to be worse. Economists Phillip Levine of Wellesley College and Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland project an even steeper drop of at least 300,000 fewer births in 2021, thanks to pandemic-related job losses and lockdowns that prevented potential couples from meeting.
“There’s definitely pricing pressure out there on colleges both public and private.”Kent Rinehart, assistant vice president for enrollment management, Marist College
Thirty-four percent of women said they have delayed childbearing plans or would have fewer children, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and almost half of adults surveyed by the Kinsey Institute said they were having less sex.
Among other things, this decline in baby-making means that even fewer students will be entering colleges and universities 18 years from now.
The sudden downturn follows almost uninterrupted growth in higher education — “a 150-year growth cycle,” Sentz calls it — which only picked up steam when the baby boom moved through.
“Demographers projected this population growth out into infinity,” Sentz said.
That made it easier for colleges and universities to raise their prices and replace the nearly quarter of freshmen that never return for sophomore year.
There was little change to this approach when enrollment began to decline 10 years ago. Tuition continued to go up and dropout rates have barely improved since 2015, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Even during the pandemic, while many institutions froze their prices, the cost of college increased overall.
“The simple case is that at present not a lot has changed,” said Michael Thomas, president and CEO of the New England Board of Higher Education. “There has not been a lot of innovative reinvention of our postsecondary systems.”
Now enrollment managers and observers expect the shock of plummeting numbers to trigger a renewed focus on affordability, retention, transfer and finding new markets in retraining older adults.
“As scary as some of this might be, it’s also oddly a really exciting time for innovation in a higher education sector that hasn’t traditionally been very good at that,” Anselment said.
In addition to slowing annual increases in cost, institutions are trying to convince prospective students and their families that their educations will lead to good jobs.
“Colleges are taking a much deeper look at program offerings and making sure that what we have is relevant to the marketplace,” Anselment said. “It’s kind of threading that needle and taking the resources you have and making sure you’re deploying them in a way that’s going to be attractive to students.”
Lawrence, for example, is doubling down on health-related disciplines and environmental science. Becker, before it closed, built a program in game design so well regarded it’s been scooped up by Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark and Lesley universities.*
That’s also an example of how institutions are vying for transfer students whose credits many previously resisted accepting.
“You’re seeing this incredible pressure to meet transfer goals,” said Rinehart. “Colleges that are missing their freshman goals are going to very often turn to transfers to try to make up the shortage.”
This should work to the advantage of consumers, Thomas said. “If you look at it from the standpoint of the student, it’s a horribly complex, inequitable, expensive transaction,” he said of the existing transfer process. “There are just too many barriers.”
Administrators are trying to chip away at dropout rates, too, plugging the substantial leak of tuition-paying students they’re losing.
“The bounce-back isn’t coming, or it’s certainly not going to be coming for a long time.”Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment, Lawrence University
“You have to look at every single person you have as being twice as valuable as you did before,” Sentz said. “The level of care, the level of attention you give them every day has got to be greater than it’s ever been.”
Universities and colleges are also eyeing the millions of people needing new training and credentials to advance in their careers, or find new ones. Nearly 36 million Americans have some credits but never finished their degrees, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
That’s a huge market, but one that many colleges and universities have been slow to tap and for which they face established competition from big online providers.
“It’s a challenge, because you are battling the behemoths in the nontraditional market —
the University of Phoenix, Southern New Hampshire [University] crowd, which is very powerful,” said Rinehart.
Competition is not the only problem coming home to roost for many colleges and universities.
Once a bright spot, new international enrollment has been falling since 2015, according to the Institute of International Education.
Meanwhile, Americans have become increasingly skeptical of the return on their investment in tuition; 57 percent of currently enrolled college students say their educations aren’t worth the money, according to a survey by the center-left think tank Third Way.
Some of the mistrust that colleges and universities will have to overcome is partisan, a survey by the Pew Research Center suggests; the increase in negative views about higher education has come overwhelmingly from among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, Pew found.
“I don’t think it’s entirely about demographics,” said Rachel Boon, chief academic officer for the Iowa Board of Regents. “Some of it is about economics and some of it is about the political atmosphere, frankly.”
Of Iowans graduating from high school, the proportion who say they intend to go to college has declined steadily, from 83 percent in 2007 to 75 percent, state figures show. The proportion who actually go is lower still.
“As scary as some of this might be, it’s also oddly a really exciting time for innovation in a higher education sector that hasn’t traditionally been very good at that.”Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment, Lawrence University
There are a few signs in the new birthrate data that the smaller number of prospective students entering the pipeline are at least more able and apt to go to college, said Levine, the Wellesley economist who’s studied it.
That’s because the declines in births are particularly pronounced among teenage mothers and people with low incomes, whose children have historically been less likely to go to college, for example, while the number of births to women with degrees is up.
They — and women who delay child rearing for career reasons — are often ultimately better able to pay for their kids’ eventual tuition.
“There’s this issue of how many people are being born but there’s also this issue of who is being born,” Levine said.
Only time — and whether people return to having children — will determine how this relentless downturn ultimately plays out, Anselment said.
“Who knows what the pandemic will bring?” he said. “We’ll find out in 18 years, I suppose.”
* This story has been updated to note that Clark and Lesley Universities also absorbed parts of Becker’s game design program.
Graphic by Pete D’Amato/The Hechinger Report.
This story about falling college and university enrollment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.