Office of Planning and Budgeting

Overall Higher Ed Enrollments Drop, But Four-Year Public School Enrollments Continue to Rise

For the first time in 15 years, fewer students are enrolling in higher education overall. Enrollments at public four-year and private non-profit institutes actually increased, but falling for-profit and two-year enrollments pulled down the average. According to preliminary data released this week by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, colleges and universities eligible for federal financial aid experienced a 0.2 percent decrease in their total enrollments between Fall 2010 (21,588,124 students) and Fall 2011 (21,554,004 students). Although slight, this drop could indicate that fewer individuals are using some sectors of higher education as a refuge from the recent recession and/or that rising tuition rates are driving students out of some markets. Regardless, the new trend could be problematic for those advocating for higher education attainment as well as for universities hoping to derive more revenue from increased enrollments.

Some specific findings include:

  • For-profit institutions were hit the hardest. Enrollments dropped by 1.9 percent at four-year for-profits and by a whopping 7 percent at two-year for-profits. This is likely due to tougher federal regulations on for-profits as well as for-profit institutions deciding to use more selective admissions practices.
  • Two-year institutes struggled, while four-year schools continued to thrive. Two-year enrollments (across all sectors) are down by an average of 2.4 percent, while four-year enrollments are up an average of 1.2 percent. Much of the two-year drop was driven by the aforementioned drop in two-year for-profit enrollments; however, California’s recent limit on community college enrollments can also help explain the decrease in two-year numbers.
  • Part-time enrollments grew, but full-time enrollments shrunk. About 0.8 percent more students enrolled in part-time programs (across all sectors), whereas 0.8 percent fewer students enrolled in full-time programs. Two possible explanations are that the job market has recovered enough to keep more students employed or that more students now need income to support themselves during school.

UW enrollments reflect those of four-year public institutes across the country. Total enrollments at four-year public institutes increased by an average of 1.5 percent from Fall 2010 to Fall 2011. UW’s total enrollments (undergraduate and graduate students combined) increased by 1.6 percent from Fall 2010 (49,940 students) to Fall 2011 (50,745 students) and by another 1.6 percent from Fall 2011 to Fall 2012 (51,576 students). For more UW enrollment statistics, see the OPB Factbook.

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