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University enrollment continued to decline in the fall for the sixth straight year, adding more bad news to the woes of financially stretched colleges and universities, new figures show.

college enrollment decline
A new report shows that university and college enrollment declined this fall for the sixth straight year. There are more than 2.6 million fewer students enrolled in higher education in the semester just ending than there were in the fall of 2011. Credit: Ben Smith for The Hechinger Report

The total decline in enrollment slowed somewhat, down 1 percent this fall compared to the previous fall, the new numbers, from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, show. But the drop in the number of first-time students is speeding up. There were 63,000 fewer first-time students in higher education this semester than during the same period last year.

In all, the ranks of university and college undergraduates dropped by nearly 224,000. That’s even after taking into account an increase of 24,000 more students in graduate and professional programs.

This means there are more than 2.6 million fewer students enrolled in higher education in the semester just coming to an end than there were in the fall of 2011, the most recent peak.

There are many reasons for the trend. One is a dip in the birth rate that means there are fewer Americans at the traditional 18- to 24-year-old age of college-going. This demographic dip is most acute in the Midwest and Northeast.

Meanwhile, an improving economy has lured students over 24 back into the workforce. There were 228,000 fewer people over 24 enrolled this fall than last fall, and 1.5 million fewer than there were in the fall of 2010.

Price sensitivity and competition also play a role, according to a survey by the by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Sixty-eight percent of chief business officers of colleges and universities say the rising cost of tuition has cut into enrollment and 57 percent blame new education models such as coding boot camps, which are vying for the same students.

The declines were steepest at community colleges, which saw their enrollments drop by 97,000. Demand fell 2.3 percent for associate degrees and nearly 11 percent in certificate and other non-degree programs.

The number of people seeking bachelor’s degrees dropped by 14,000, or 1.5 percent.

For-profit universities also continued to take a pounding, with nearly 69,000 fewer students in the fall than in the fall of last year.

No upswing is projected until 2023, and it will be very gradual and comprised increasingly of low-income racial and ethnic minorities who are the first in their families to go to college, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education estimates. Those students tend to need much more financial aid and academic support.

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  1. I’d also add that it’s notable to mention most colleges have changed their marketing in the past six years from traditional to mostly digital. The digital ads largely aren’t that persuasive.

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