Is Going to College Still a Thing?

by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

2017 marked the 6th straight year that enrollment in undergraduate education declined. Of course, this news has caused many university administrators across the U.S. to totally freak out — and with good reason. Enrollment is among the top three metrics (along with retention and persistence) used to assess a university’s financial wellbeing.

For many years, university administrators have been bracing themselves for the potentially shattering disruption seen in other information driven industries. It turns out that declining enrollment after over 60 years of exponential growth makes people nervous.

This concern was palpable at this year’s SXSWEDU conference. In each higher education session, I continually heard industry thought leaders mutter the same phrase during the opening remarks of their sessions.

“There is a crisis of trust in higher education.”

Once I got home and took a minute. The pure adamance and common understanding of this statement began to sit funny with me. In my experience as a professor and academic coach, students from all over the world still deeply believe in the power of a college education.

Students still enter my classroom proud, eager, earnest, late, sleep deprived, disheveled, but committed to the idea that a college education will provide them with access and opportunity they might not otherwise have. They are worried about paying for rising tuition costs. They fear not finding fulfilling work. They would rather watch Netflix than write a paper, but they still deeply value the college experience.

So I got to thinking. Is there truly a crisis of trust in higher education? Or did the enrollment bubble just burst? Is it possible that we’re all freaking out because the market for an undergraduate education has simply normalized after growing from 1.5 million students in 1939 to more than 20 million in 2011.

According to a report from the National Center on Education Statistics, undergraduate enrollment increased by 37% between 2000 and 2010 but declined by around 6% between 2010 and 2015. (Psst…why people are totally freaking out.)

So what happened? Enrollment in for-profit institutions declined dramatically. Between 2000 and 2010 enrollment in for-profit institutions quadrupled from 403,000 to 1.7 million, but between 2010 and 2015 for-profit institutions saw a 38% decrease, while 2-year public institutions saw a 16% decrease, and in a shocking turn of events, traditional 4-year nonprofit institutions actually saw a 1% increase.

The National Center of Education Statistics projects that between 2015 and 2026 that enrollment at traditional 4-year nonprofit institutions will increase by 9% and enrollment at 2-year institutions will increase by 21%. Hooray for college.

So before we get all crazy and convince our young people that higher education is obsolete, let’s take a look at what factors might be contributing to the current downturn in enrollment.

  1. The number of high school graduates has leveled off. The high school graduation rate is currently the highest it’s ever been at 84%, but the number of students actually graduating high school has leveled off and may even be declining due to lower birth rates.

There is no doubt that colleges and universities across the country are facing many financial challenges brought by the current decrease in student enrollment and gaps in affordability. Many institutions greatly expanded their campuses, human resources, and amenities to meet the rise in demand and competition brought by the exponential growth of the last decades. They are now faced with hard decisions about how to adjust their business models to what looks like much slower growth in the coming years.

Instead, the decline in undergraduate enrollment over the last years is not an indication that kids today don’t value or trust a college education anymore. Maybe it’s just the end of this particular phase in higher education history. Perhaps declines in enrollment are not a sign of the beginning of the end for higher education. Maybe college is still totally a thing people value, they just need academic and financial support to access it.


Katy Oliveira is the founder of Collegehood, a college success coaching practice, and the host of the Collegehood Advice podcast, where she shares strategy, advice, and stories to help students live their best life during college. Currently, Katy is also an adjunct professor at St. Edward’s University where she teaches American History and Current American Social Dilemmas. You can find her at www.collegehoodadvice.com

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Katy Oliveira

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College Success Coach. Educator. Young Adult Advocate. Host of Collegehood Advice Podcast. Co-Founder at Good Education. www.collegehoodadvice.com

Good Education

Sharing the Goodness … From Kindergarten to College