High Enrollers

When the economy is down, people go back to college. That rule of thumb is as true now as it has been in past downturns, and for-profit institutions especially have been reaping the benefits, according to new data from the U.S. Education Department.

In fall 2009, during one of the most devastating years of the current financial crisis, 7.1 percent more students enrolled in college than had the previous fall, according to data released Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). And while all types of institutions — public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit — saw a bump, for-profit institutions easily outpaced the other sectors, growing their rolls by nearly 25 percent and their revenues by 21 percent, the federal study found.

Even as they prepared to gird themselves against stingy allocations from cash-poor state legislators, the nation’s public institutions grew by 6 percent — a modest rate compared to the for-profits, but substantial as far as raw numbers. Public institutions added 844,273 students to the commercial colleges’ 441,463; both owe their growth at least in part to the continuing boom in online education, a medium that both have embraced.

It was a less auspicious fall for private nonprofit institutions, which grew by 2.8 percent (106,695 students) and saw their stock portfolios spontaneously combust. After seeing their investments return $6.5 billion in fiscal year 2008, private nonprofit colleges stood by helplessly as their portfolios lost $64 billion in fiscal year 2009. (Public institutions lost $8 billion on their investments that year. For-profits actually saw a $35 million return, although they raked in most of their total $14.8 billion in revenue from tuition and fees.)

The for-profits, which have been steadily gobbling up student market share for years, officially cracked double digits for the first time, accounting for 10.6 percent of all postsecondary students in the country in fall 2009.

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