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College enrollment slide continues

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment increased in only eight states and decreased by 10% or more in 19 states. That’s not great news for higher education. Although people often pin enrollment declines on population decreases, the number of US births in 2004 was 4.1M. In 2019, 48.2% of 18-19 year old enrolled in post-secondary courses.

Right now, roughly half of all 18 year olds in the US enroll in post-secondary institutions. That compares to about one-third of US 18-year-olds who went to college in 1972. In other words, there are far more people in college classrooms now than there were 40 years ago. While college enrollment by 18 year olds has decreased slightly in the past five years (.6%), a lack of people is not driving the enrollment decline.

Cost is also a major issue for college attendance. The average annual cost of tuition at a four-year institution in 1972 was $5,400 (adjusted for inflation in 2020 dollars). The average annual cost of tuition in 2020 (in real dollars) was $16,650. That’s an increase of more than 300%. If cost is keeping people out of college, community colleges should be popping at the seams. After all, they’re the lowest-cost college option, right?

They’re not.

Cost isn’t the real issue, either. When something has value, that value offsets the cost of acquisition. In the case of a college education, the cost is less important if the resulting degree can produce enough additional income, or guarantee employment in a difficult economy.

Community college enrollment reflects degree value

Community colleges have been hardest hit by college enrollment declines because they do not return enough additional income or guarantee employment in a difficult economy. There is little intrinsic value in having a two-year degree right now. Having a two-year degree right now does not provide a hedge against inflation. It does not provide employment security – although right now, employment security is not the problem.

A community college degree does not yield any significant income increase compared to a high school diploma. That is the problem. That’s why community colleges are empty. A two-year degree not only costs money out-of-pocket, but also prevents a person from earning while they’re enrolled in school. Ten years after graduation, there’s still no discernible benefit from attending a community college.

This speaks to a lack of leadership at the community colleges. When the economy is good, college enrollment is soft. Community colleges should use this time to develop new academic programs and prepare for the next economic slide. From the college enrollment numbers, few community college administrators over the last decade did this. The pandemic has revealed just how bare the community college cupboard actually is. Instead of spending time and money developing new programs, improving facilities, and bolstering campus infrastructure, community college administrators used that money to hire more administrators.

The coming recession is going to be very interesting.

Photo Credit: bourgeoisbee , via Flickr