College Enrollment Down Again

More empty desks as college enrollment declines for fifth straight year.
More empty desks as college enrollment declines for fifth straight year.

College enrollment declined in the fall of 2016 for the fifth straight year. Student count fell nationally 1.9% to 16.3 million, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The for-profit sector was hardest hit — a 14.5% decline — as older students, who tend to take vocational courses requiring more flexible hours, headed back to the workforce. Four-year private, non-profit colleges suffered a 0.6% decline, with the fall-off concentrated among smaller institutions.

Public four-year colleges fared better. They squeaked out a 0.2% gain in enrollment to 8.1 million students.

The article cited rising tuition as a major factor behind the dipping college enrollment:

“The trend of [tuition] prices continuing to rise faster than inflation is beginning to have more and more of an impact” on enrollments, especially among low-income and first-generation students, said Jamie Merisotis, president and chief executive of Lumina Foundation. … Affordability concerns are outweighing projections about the economic benefits of a college education.


Virginia’s public four-year colleges slightly out-performed the national averages, increasing enrollment 0.56% overall, according to State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) data.

But George Mason University accounted for that full increase almost single-handedly. Several institutions lost students, most notably Old Dominion University and Radford University. It is dangerous to draw conclusions from a single year’s performance, which could have any number of possible explanations. But it’s a warning sign if an institution consistently loses students over several years.

Bacon’s bottom line: The higher ed industry touts the higher average earnings of college graduates as justification for getting a degree. But the average includes graduates from a broad spectrum of institutions from Harvard to Podunk U. If Harvard grads are earning more than average, someone is earning less than average. Students whose academic achievement was weaker in high school have every reason to fear that their earnings will be on the low side of average and every reason to take a hard look at the financial return on their time and investment. Plenty of semi-skilled, blue collar occupations provide a good living without the need for big student loans.

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8 responses to “College Enrollment Down Again”

  1. It seems clear enough, the need for higher education is fundamentally solid. The key drivers — population demographics, and the increasing need for higher education (i.e., the shift in employment from rote, physical manufacturing to services and communications) — don’t seem to have gone into reverse. What MAY be happening here is competition for the dwindling number of students who feel compelled to afford what these institutions offer. In that vein, your post two days ago, “Public Virginia Universities “Bang for the Buck”,” is right on point.

    What worries me is that so many Virginia young people are reaching the correct conclusion that they don’t need (or can’t afford) higher education at current prices; if this continues, we will see our labor force becoming less attractive and potential employers looking elsewhere to grow. At some point it ought to be the State’s job to interfere with the market forces at work here and invest in Virginia’s future by underwriting more of the cost of a Virginia higher education. And the place to start is with the Community College system.

    1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

      Can anyone explain why Radford University still exists as an independent entity? We can debate about a lot of these schools, but Radford University is literally 20 minutes from Virginia Tech. Does it make any sense to have 2 large universities with 2 separate administrative staffs and so many redundancies in such close geographic proximity? Why couldn’t the state at least save on administrative costs by merging the 2 schools?

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Dig a bit more Jim – I don’t think these latest numbers are by any means a one-time thing. The trend has been at best flat for a while. And more to the point is the question of how the enrollments compare to the earlier projections, which have to be approved by SCHEV. Shrinking by 200 or 300 students is a huge hit to a college budget. Markets change, and sometimes change accelerates rapidly. The shakeout may be coming.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think if it were not for college loans – we’d see that most 4-year college is not only not for low-income folks – it’s not for middle income folks.

    So, let’s face it – 4-year college for the middle-class no longer really exists unless the govt subsidizes it with taxpayer dollars – making it one of the biggest “entitlements” provided to folks.

    Could the average middle class family afford 4-year college for their kid – without government loans?

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    The one thing I almost never hear for inner city poor on entitlements that I OFTEN DO HEAR for the folks who have lost their jobs due to a plant or mines closing is retraining.

    Wouldn’t it be great if folks like Mr. Reeves or Jim Bacon here – added to their complaints about folks on entitlements – actual reforms they supported and one that I would add for their consideration is “retraining” for Moms with kids on entitlements.

    Mandatory education – tailored to the needs of the individual. child care on-site or even provided at the child care center.

    but make it mandatory. Make it clear that in exchange for entitlements – that gaining more education is required to continue to receive entitlements.

    Would it cost more money – yep… would that cost go on for a lifetime? Nope – have a date certain that the entitlements end – so that getting that education for a better job is an imperative.

    Finally – everyone should recognize what happens to people who do not have a job and do not receive entitlements. How do they survive? They deal drugs. Women sell their bodies. Others steal.

    And so what do many Conservatives say is the answer to that?

    Prison. which does what? It costs 20-30K a year and most do get back out and when they do – what is their chance of getting a job as a felon?

    The problem with Conservatives on this issue is the same problem they have with health care, immigration, education and that is they KNOW what they don’t like but they have no practice answers… i.e. those “effective” solutions the keep saying we need.

    their primary response to these tough nut issues is primarily to talk the talk but do nothing and let the issue twist in the wind.

    and let me add – “Liberals” whose solution is the status quo – are just as bad.. but I must point out – that those who would do away with what the Liberals support and replace it with nothing are even worse. Which is worse.. ?? doing something that is not working or doing nothing at a cost of 20-30K a year?

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    oops… wrong thread.. my bad!

    but here is something interesting about the trend for debt with respect to the household incomes and it’s not the low income folks who are the culprits!

  6. Any good or service that has outpaced the rate of inflation for 40 consecutive years, like higher education has, will ultimately become less affordable, even to the middle class. The government has tried to offset it through grants and loan guarantees, which “benefit” the middle class, but this is just enabling the runaway costs (the Bennett Hypothesis 2.0), so it is part of the problem. According to the government scorecard website, only 68% of graduates are actively in repayment on average. That is a ticking time bomb.

    Government policy is a big part of the affordability issue. Direct subsidies should be targeted at lower income students (and not institutions). If the government stays in the student loan business, anything outside of core education should be explicitly excluded. Subsidized and guaranteed loans should not help fund the fees that pay for athletics ($1,300 per year per student at JMU), institutionally-subsidized research ($5,500 per student per year at UVA — if the government wants to fund research it can do that through the existing sources like the NIH), and out of control growth in administration, which is the fastest growing component of higher education costs. These loans are really an enabler for the institutions, which engage in what economists call rent-seeking — increasing their share of the pie while not growing the pie.

    The graphic Larry showed hints at what is going on. The percentage of graduates coming from lower quarter of population is going down, and the lower middle class is starting to follow.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    Can’t disagree with Izzo at all.. “rent seeking” fits, and a certain irony in that some folks say that when you give entitlements to the poor -some will choose the entitlements over work… and indeed the same thing for college and loans. If you offer “all-you-can-borrow” loans for any and everything besides tuition – with th distinct possibility that if you don’t repay it might be “forgiven” – then yes,

    people will borrow money for way more than just tuition.. and this includes high income households.. just look at that chart! People who are WELL OFF are borrowing money hand over fist because it’s damn near like “free money” and as Izzo surmises – it IS very much a ticking time bomb.

    And you know – all those folks who favor “vouchers” for K-12 and MedicAid – not a peep out of them for vouchers for higher Ed!!!

    Instead of giving aid direct to each student and let them shop for the best deal – we want the govt and taxpayers to 1. fund the University and then 2 – put price controls on what the University charges..

    just goes to show – that if someone is being asked about subsidies for others – they need to be cut because those folks don’t “deserve” them – but subsidies that benefit you – well heckfire… the response is.. “why can’t the Govt “force” the Universities not to charge “too much” for College?

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