It’s pretty much inevitable that enrollment in U.S. higher education will be down for 10 consecutive years. The latest estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse show fall ’20 enrollments down 2.5% over last year. This will further the slide for spring ’21, which will end up being a decade’s worth of dropping enrollments for degree-seeking students. All told, at the peak in spring of 2011, 19,610,826 students were enrolled in U.S. higher education. By spring of 2020, that number had eroded to 17,458,306. I predict it will dip under 17 million this spring – making it a net loss of more than two and a half million students over the last decade.
This enrollment decline has taken place against the backdrop of well-intentioned and well-funded college attainment campaigns across many states and from many high-profile supporting organizations. Despite the big push to get more Americans into and completing college, the numbers have gone in the opposite direction. And they won’t improve any time soon. The latest data reported by Strada Education Network last week was an eye-opening reminder that declines will continue. The percentage of aspiring adult learners who believe education will be worth the cost dropped from 77% to 59% since 2019; those believing education will help them get a good job dropped from 89% to 64%. On top of continued declines in the perceived value of higher education, the population age demographic of traditional aged college students is going to drop by roughly 15% between 2025 and 2030 – just about when many colleges hope to recover from the lingering financial hits caused by Covid-19. Given all this, it’s quite possible that the enrollment decline will continue for at least another full decade.