Higher education enrollment is about more than the numbers.
Inside Higher Ed’s Sara Weissman shared this perspective at EWA’s Higher Education Seminar: The Covid Generation in January.
“These trends really matter,” Weissman said. “Who’s enrolled now affects who graduates down the line, who has access to higher paying jobs, and who really uses this tool for social mobility that we know higher ed can be.”
Enrollment trends also have major impacts on individual schools; a drop in enrollment means a drop in funding, and tough decisions can follow, she said. During the pandemic, which saw more than 1 million fewer students enrolling in college nationwide, campus leaders had to review staffing levels as well as program offerings.
All that filters down to the students, Weissman said.
Weissman moderated a panel on college enrollment trends during the seminar in Alexandria, Virginia. Other speakers included Aurelie Jean-Baptiste, a student at Florida State University; Stratsi Kulinski, president and CEO of NewU University, and Brian Kennedy II, senior policy analyst of workforce policy at Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Kennedy noted that enrollment trends, particularly within certain demographics, can also help tell another important story: Is college still worth the investment?
The College Enrollment Landscape
Enrollment declines in higher education aren’t new, Weissman said, continuing a trend over the last decade or so. Historically, when the economy is bad, more people go to school, and when the economy is good, more potential students may opt to enter the workforce.
However, that was less true during the pandemic; the poor economy didn’t increase college enrollment. When the economy slows down again, Weissman said, it’s not yet clear if more people will opt for higher education.
The country saw about a 1.23 million drop in undergraduate enrollment, including a 150,000 drop in freshman enrollment, compared to 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“What that tells us is the students who didn’t enroll early in the pandemic … they didn’t come back this semester, at least not in the numbers that campus leaders had hoped,” Weissman said.
One bright note, she said, is overall enrollment at community colleges, which was down just 0.4% in October 2022. In its February 2023 enrollment estimate, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center noted a 6.1% increase in freshman enrollment at community colleges.
Online higher education is still surging, but who’s enrolling in online-only programs is surprising, Weissman said. It’s not just working students or older students opting for online programs but younger, traditionally college-aged students as well, she added.
Demographic Enrollment Changes: “Is This Investment Worth the Cost?”
Reporters can find the latest enrollment figures, including student demographic data, from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
White undergraduate students had the steepest enrollment decline at 240,000. Enrollment also decreased for Black (30,000) and Native American (1,600) students. On the other hand, Latino and Asian student enrollment rose 42,000 and 15,000, respectively.
Brian Kennedy II of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said his think tank sought to better understand barriers for Black students in community college and noted enrollment is tied to outcomes.
“What we largely found was that although Black students disproportionately were represented as students in community colleges, the system was not producing, or is not producing, equitable outcomes for them,” Kennedy said.
Black students were leaving institutions with higher rates of debt and lower wages compared to their classmates, he said. It begs the question: “Is this investment worth the cost?” he said.
“If Black students are seeing diminished outcomes, then what would be the reason for making that huge investment in higher education in the first place?” he said.
As more students ask themselves that question, Kennedy said, it makes sense to see a drop in enrollment for Black students.
Are Shorter, Affordable Higher Ed Programs the Answer?
One brand new college is looking to eliminate as many barriers as possible to entice students back to higher education.
NewU University, in Washington D.C., opened in fall 2022 with a class schedule of Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., so students can still work.
Despite it being a private university, so far, no student has had to take out student loans to pay for college, President Stratsi Kulinski said. The average net price per student is only $6,500, he added, which so far has been manageable for students. About 53% of the students said they would not be enrolled in college if they weren’t enrolled at NewU, according to Kulinski.
The college boasts an attendance rate of 95% for its first semester, Kulinski said, and despite the limited data, “we think we’re onto something great.” The majority of those enrolled are students of color, and most students are men, according to the university’s data.
The school also has longer semesters, so each class can be worth four credit hours instead of just three. The goal is to finish a bachelor’s degree in three years.
Applying to the school, Kulinski said, is free, “takes two minutes” and relies solely on a student’s grade point average.
“We think that we’re just basically reacting to what the market is asking,” Kulinski said. “It’s a shorter program; it’s more affordable; it’s a very clean access path to it.”
How Some Colleges Are Keeping Students Enrolled
Florida State University student Aurelie Jean-Baptiste said her school has worked hard to help first-generation students feel like they belong on campus.
The college program, she said, called Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (CARE), helped her stick with her education during the pandemic, even when she didn’t feel like she was doing well with online classes.
“They gave us a sense of family. They gave us a sense of community, a sense of alliance,” Jean-Baptiste said. “They told us we have to finish what we started. I think that’s what’s always stayed in my mind, despite the challenges of the pandemic.”
She encouraged reporters to look at mental health issues on college campuses as part of the broader story on enrollment and retention in higher education.
“I think a lot of us suffer in silence,” she said.