FORBES: Collegiate Deserted Villages

Career College Central Summary:

  • In his greatest poem, writing just years before the American Revolution, Oliver Goldsmith lamented the disappearance of small villages from British life. While not yet “deserted villages,” many college campuses are teetering, barely staying solvent. Using the bon mots du jour, colleges are “learning communities” whose vitality depends on having students.
  • The reality is college enrollments are in decline. Total enrollments fell 1.8 percent in 2012 from the previous year; last year, the decline was 1.5 percent; this year, enrollments declined another 1.3 percent. If the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data are to be believed, enrollments today are  more than 4.5 percent below what they were in the fall of 2010 (there was a slight enrollment decline in 2011 from 2010). This is the first time since World War II where enrollments have fallen four years in a row.
  • There are a number of caveats and additions. The National Student Clearinghouse data is preliminary, and excludes a small number of institutions.  An issue arises: do you count total enrollments, or students enrolled in school? Some students register at two schools simultaneously. One thing is for sure: not-for-profit private school enrollment is at a record high; the decline is entirely concentrated in public education and for-profit schools.
  • The big declines are occurring at the community college level (down three percent or more for each of the last three years). The sharp decline in for-profit enrollments arising out of the Obama Administration’s hostility to that form of education seems to be largely over; four-year for-profit enrollments were down less than 6,000 students (0.4 percent) from last year. Adjusting for a definitional change, enrollments today at four year public schools are almost identical to what they were three years ago, creating what one famous economist (A.C. Pigou) in another context called “the classical stationary state.”
  • The conventional wisdom is that the decline in a temporary phenomenon related to a variety of economic and demographic factors. This has been a period where the 18 to 24 year old age pool has bottomed –the prime age crowd for a majority of students (despite some claims to the contrary). True, but why then is enrollment decline particularly pronounced for those over 24 years old? Others note that there was an enrollment surge after the 2008 financial crisis –unemployed persons decided to return to schools to strengthen their resume. But now we are now five years out from the ostensible end of the recession –how can you explain the fall 2014 downturn relative to 2013 in terms of a recession ending several years earlier? Still, I think university presidents implicitly assume enrollments will start rising soon –already the rate of enrollment decline is shrinking a bit.

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