Following Period of Growth, College Enrollment Dips

September 13, 2013


According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, college enrollment in fall 2012 dropped by half a million (467,000) from the previous year. The decline for both undergraduate and graduate students comes amid a period of steady growth in college enrollment, with 3.2 million new students entering classrooms between 2006 and 2011. The decline was led by a drop of 419,000 in students 25 and older.

As the nation’s students begin a new school year, the Census Bureau’s annual report, School Enrollment: 2012, outlines the characteristics of children and adults enrolled in school at all levels — from nursery to graduate school. Among the characteristics examined are age, sex, race, Hispanic origin, nativity and foreign-born parentage.

Hispanic Student Population Growing

Although overall enrollment declined, the number of Hispanic students enrolled in college grew by 447,000 from 2011 to 2012. By contrast, non-Hispanic white enrollment declined by 1.1 million and black enrollment fell by 108,000 for the same time period. The Hispanic student population also increased from 11 percent of the total college student population to 17 percent. The percentage of black students rose slightly (from 14 percent to 15 percent), while the percent of non-Hispanic white students fell from 67 percent to 58 percent of the total student population.

“This increase in the number of Hispanics enrolled in college can be attributed to the combination of an increase in the adult Hispanic population and their climbing likelihood of being enrolled,” said Julie Siebens, a statistician in the Census Bureau’s Education and Social Stratification Branch, in a release.

The report is the latest in a series of studies that show older people who once flocked to colleges and universities during a tough economic recession might now be reentering the workforce, which contrasts the steady increase in enrollment seen between 2000 and 2011, according to figures from the Department of Education. While most students are under 25, there were 804,000 students age 50 and older enrolled in schools at all levels in 2012.

Factors Impacting Enrollment

According to a new survey released by the accounting firm KPMG, higher education leaders have growing concerns about enrollment. Some 37 percent of the 103 administrators polled in the annual Higher Education Outlook Survey said they were “very concerned” about maintaining enrollment levels. That’s compared to 23 percent who gave the same answer just one year earlier, the firm said in a news release.

Asked to identify the major factors affecting enrollment at their institution, 58 percent identified parents/students inability to pay tuition as the top factor, compared with 49 percent the previous year. The second major factor, cited by 38 percent of respondents, was changing U.S. demographics.

“We’re seeing a demographic change in the traditional student and that is of greater concern to leaders of private institutions,” said Milford McGuirt, KPMG’s National Audit Sector Leader for Higher Education & Not-for-Profits, in a press release. “We tend to think of the traditional student as a high school graduate who goes to a public or private college for four years and graduates. But due to rising costs and a poor labor market, many students — especially those from immigrant or minority families — are deferring college or looking for less expensive options such as community college. Some are foregoing higher education altogether, so concerns about enrollment levels are likely to persist among higher education leaders.”

To solve the problem, nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said they will be putting more resources into innovative approaches such as online education and other technology.