Why is undergraduate college enrollment declining? : NPR


Undergraduate enrollment in the United States is down for the sixth consecutive year. Women entering higher education saved colleges in the 1980s. So who can save colleges today?


Enrollment at undergraduate universities in the United States is down for the sixth consecutive year. This decline is widespread in higher education, despite the popularity of the baccalaureate. NPR’s Team Ed’s Elissa Nadworny has more.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The slight increase in the number of undergraduates pursuing a bachelor’s degree this spring was not enough to prevent the decline in enrollment in alternatives to bachelor’s degrees, like associate degrees or certificate programs. And that’s according to new figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and there are two main reasons for this steady decline. First, the job market can attract students. The US employment rate fell below 4 percent this month.

JASON DEWITT: Colleges are certainly affected.

NADWORNY: This is Jason DeWitt, research director at the Clearinghouse.

DEWITT: When the economy is good, college enrollment tends to go down, at least for working adults.

NADWORNY: And the number of mature students, students over the age of 24, has fallen by over 1.5 million since the spring of 2011. The other big factor, America’s demographics, is changing. The number of high school graduates is expected to remain largely stable and then decline. DeWitt explains that it’s because of the lower birth rates.

DEWITT: It’s easy to forget that, you know, these things also kind of go in cycles.

NADWORNY: That’s right. We have been here before. In the 1970s and 1980s, schools faced a similar enrollment crisis. What about the people who saved the university at the time? Women. Today, female students represent more than half of registrations.

DEWITT: So the question now is, who’s the next group (laughs) to recruit on college campuses? And Hispanics and first-generation college students are likely to account for a larger share of new college enrollments.

NADWORNY: It’s based on the changing demographics in public schools. And research shows that first-generation students and students of color often have their own needs when they enter a college campus, a change colleges will need to recognize, DeWitt says. While they’re at it, the other thing colleges can do to maintain their numbers? Improve the retention and graduation rates of their current students.

DEWITT: And, you know, it’s probably cheaper in terms of resources. You know, keep the students you already have.

NADWORNY: It’s a solution that would seem to please the colleges and their students. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.

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