Dive Brief: 

  • College enrollment is projected to grow slightly over the next decade, according to an annual report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
  • Between 2018 and 2029, undergraduate enrollment is expected to incease 2% to 17 million students. Graduate enrollment is projected to climb 3% to 3.1 million students over the same period. 
  • Although the report bodes well for overall enrollment, it doesn’t discuss how the pandemic could impact the trend. 

Dive Insight: 

Enrollment trends have varied by institution type. From 2000 to 2018, undergraduate enrollment at public institutions rose 24% to 13 million students, though it has decreased slightly since 2010, the report notes. 

That’s compared to a 27% increase in undergraduate enrollment at private nonprofits and 83% growth at for-profits from 2000 and 2018. However, for-profit enrollment dropped by 57% since 2010, while private nonprofit enrollment has increased slightly. 

Yet no institution type has been immune to recent enrollment challenges. All sectors of higher education are estimated to have lower levels of enrollment this spring compared to a year ago, according to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Some regions of the country, such as the Northeast and the Midwest, have been harder hit than others. Ten states  including Vermont, Missouri and Iowa  are estimated to have year-over-year enrollment declines in the spring 2020 term of at least 3%. 

Dozens of colleges have shuttered or consolidated under these pressures over the last few years. The coronavirus will likely hasten the demise of struggling colleges, experts say, with at least four announcing plans to close since the pandemic took root in the U.S. 

The crisis has upended higher education by forcing colleges to temporarily shutter campuses, the Clearinghouse report notes, adding that its figures represent the sector before the pandemic.

Moody’s Investors Service in March downgraded its outlook for the sector from stable to negative, citing “unprecedented enrollment uncertainty.” 

Several recent surveys suggest that students are wary of enrolling or returning to college this fall if campuses don’t reopen. In response, hundreds of colleges pushed their decision deadlines to June 1 and are making more offers to students placed on the waitlist. 

International enrollment is also a major concern, with many U.S. colleges expecting travel restrictions and visa delays to prevent foreign students from coming to their campuses. One recent survey of 346 higher education institutions found that colleges could lose at least $3 billion from an expected decrease in international enrollment this fall. 

Although enrollment has historically risen during economic downturns, it’s unclear how colleges will fare during this recession. 

Recent reports suggest for-profit colleges are boosting their advertising and offering discounts to attract students. And some community colleges are preparing for an influx of students hoping to save money at a two-year institution rather than take virtual classes at a four-year university. 

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