The Burning Question: Why has college enrollment dropped?

A student walks into a student union.

College enrollment is declining for the first time in decades, forcing schools to compete for students. What's the cause and what does it mean for U.S. education?

For years, students have faced ever-increasing competition to get into colleges, but at some schools that might no longer be the case. In fact, more and more often, schools are now finding themselves competing for students.

Enrollment numbers for 2012-2013 dropped 2 percent from the previous year, the first significant decrease since the 1990s, The New York Times reported on Friday. And those declining numbers are wreaking havoc at lower- and middle-tier institutions.

So why is college enrollment dropping, and what does it mean for the future of education in America?

The recent economic recession brought a boon for universities across the country as many Americans sought refuge from a sluggish job market in higher education, but lately that trend has reversed. Ivy League and top-tier institutions are as popular and competitive as ever, but thousands of other colleges are fearing for their futures.

"There are many institutions that are on the margin, economically, and are very concerned about keeping their doors open if they can't hit their enrollment numbers," David A. Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling told the Times.

 "These colleges are going to need to do some serious work to get themselves noticed," said Bev Taylor, founder of the private college consulting firm The Ivy Coach.

This is bad news for colleges and for students: Budget cuts mean doors closing, fewer course options and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, though, all this backlash could lead to a brighter future for secondary education in America.

"Eventually less competitive universities will be forced to close their doors or merge with other less competitive colleges in a survival of the fittest competition," said Taylor. "The remaining universities are those that will be offering a better education, a better product."

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The percentage of high school graduates enrolled in college has remained fairly steady. Approximately 66 percent of 2012 high school graduates were enrolled in college that October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But enrollment numbers have been buoyed by population growth in recent years: Enrollment increased 11 percent between 1990 and 2000 and 37 percent between 2000 and 2010, when the 18- to 24-year-old population rose from approximately 27.3 million to approximately 30.7 million, according to the National Center for Education (NCES). Additionally, the largest enrollment increases seen between 2000 and 2010 were among students over age 25, according to NCES.

Degree programs at middle-tier colleges have ballooned to meet this demand, and so have tuition prices; colleges have in effect cashed in on the economic downturn.

 "The cost of college is really what's driving all this," says Dr. Bari Norman, co-founder and president of Expert Admissions. "People aren't going to college just to go. They might be more thoughtful about their reasons for taking out the loans."

According to NCES, between 2000-2001 and 2010-2011, college tuition prices at public institutions rose 42 percent and prices at private institutions rose 31 percent, after adjustment for inflation.

"I do see some colleges, and some states, focusing more on tracking college completion, making sure students get their money's worth by making sure that they finish," says Anya Kamenetz, author of "DIY U" and "Generation Debt." "I think this is an important area of focus going forward."

"These colleges have to function financially. They need to say, 'Hey, maybe bigger isn't always better. Maybe we need to be smaller but be better at what we do,'" Norman said.

As they grapple with budget cuts, many schools are also finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to woo accepted students.

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"One way of attracting high-achieving students is to offer larger merit scholarships," says Bev Taylor. "By offering these merit scholarships, colleges can raise their mean scores and ranking in U.S. News and World Report and as a result become more attractive to top students."

Norman says that at a time when those "high achievers" achieve more than ever, shrinking enrollments also opens up spots for some students who might have been on the margin in the past.

"Those people will certainly have some additional admissions options that weren't available before," she explained.

Some, as the recent decline suggests, may ultimately decide that college is not the "be all and end all."

A de-emphasis on the college degree as the essential path to a meaningful living will also help what higher education observers see as an "ominous trend" in overselling the college experience.

"We've seen the most inflation in the past 5-10 years," says Norman. "And that bubble is starting to pop."

"It is not always the best thing for people to go to college," she added. "You might have fewer people choosing to go."


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