Gazing Into Higher Ed’s Future

College enrollments and degree completion will continue to boom for the rest of this decade, but who enrolls (and finishes) will vary widely and, without a major change, far too few Americans will complete college to achieve the ambitious goals that President Obama and others have set for the country.

Those are among the conclusions that might be drawn from a series of projections on educational attainment that the U.S. Education Department released on Wednesday. The report by the National Center for Education Statistics, "Projections of Education Statistics Through 2019," looks out (with full acknowledgment of the limitations of the crystal-ball gazing) at how everything from first grade enrollments through doctoral awards might look at the end of the current decade.

For colleges and universities, the news is mixed. As widely anticipated, high school enrollments will flatten; after growing 27 percent between 1994-95 and 2006-7, the number of high school graduates will have grown by just 1 percent from 2006-7 through 2018-19. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia will see increases in that time, and 27 project declines.

Postsecondary enrollments will increase nonetheless, the department projects, rising 17 percent, to 22.4 million students, from 2008 through 2019. The flattening in the number of high school graduates will be more than offset, the analysis speculates, by sharp jumps in the number of 25- to 29-year-olds. While that age cohort made up 14.3 percent of all enrollments in 2008, 25- to 29-year-olds will make up 15.3 percent of all students by 2019, the department projects. The overall enrollment increase, while sizable, would actually represent a slowing pace, as total enrollments grew by 34 percent in the period from 1994 to 2008, the analysis shows.

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