College enrollment over time surprising

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The U.S. Bureau of the Census recently released a report indicating that college enrollment dropped by about half a million students from 2011 to 2012. In fact, the press release from the Census Bureau said that enrollment “plunged” from one year earlier. Most people are well aware of the correlation between educational attainment and earnings: in general, the higher the education level, the higher the income. Future prosperity, both as individuals and as a society, is tied to improving education levels (particularly for states which are lagging, such as Texas). So is the drop in college enrollment something we should be worried about? I don’t think so, and here’s why.

First of all, the drop (which was actually about 467,000 nationwide) isn’t all that huge compared to total enrollment. With just over 19.9 million people now in college, the decline was about 2.3 percent from 2011—not exactly a plunge. Even so, downward is generally considered the wrong direction, so we took a closer look at the underlying changes revealed in the detailed tables.

One thing of note is that first-year enrollment in college actually went up from 2011 to 2012. The driver was two-year college first-year enrollment, which rose by more than enough to offset the decline in four-year colleges. Moreover, more students enrolled in the first year at two-year colleges (2.6 million) than in four-year (2.3 million), reversing the pattern of 2011, when there were more freshmen at four-year schools. Reasons for this change include the high price of college and growth in jobs suited to two-year institutions. In addition, the widely publicized problem of unemployment among recent college graduates during the recession was doubtless shaping decisions about whether to pursue four-year degrees.

Older students accounted for much of the decrease in enrollment. In fact, more than half of the total overall drop fell within one relatively small group: part-time male students over the age of 25, who numbered fewer than 1.5 million persons in 2011 (less than 7.3 percent of total college enrollment of 20.4 million). Between 2011 and 2012, enrollment among this group fell by 243,000, which is a full 52.0 percent of the overall decline. Why would these men stop enrolling in college part time? Mostly, because they found a better option (a job).

The data by race is also informative. While the overall total fell, Hispanic enrollment increased by 447,000. The percentage of Hispanic high school graduates aged 18-24 who are enrolled in college surpassed the percentage for whites for the first time in 2012, which represents a notable change from historical patterns. In 1972, just 27.2 percent of Hispanics (which can be of any race) who had graduated from high school and were under the age of 24 were enrolled in college. Forty years later, 49.4 percent were enrolled. The increase has been particularly significant in recent years, as recently at 2002, the proportion was 32.0 percent, and in 2008 it was 37.7 percent.

Black enrollment was fairly steady but did fall slightly. The percent of Asian high school graduates in the 18-24 age range enrolled in college is much higher than any other racial/ethnic group, standing at 66.3 percent in 2012 (compared to 47.6 percent for white, non-Hispanics; 45.0 percent for Blacks; and 49.4 percent for Hispanics). Asian enrollment also fell slightly from 2011 to 2012.

Looking at changes by gender, male students declined by 530,000, while females rose by 61,000. As noted, older part-time male student enrollment fell sharply. White, non-Hispanic male enrollment dropped by 657,000. Enrollment for male part-time students who were working full time fell 302,000. No matter how you slice or dice it, male students comprised the bulk of the overall drop. One particularly bright note for females is the large gain in enrollment among Hispanics, which rose by 375,000 (an increase of almost 25 percent).

A long-term historical view shows a slow increase in the proportion of high school graduates aged 18-24 who are enrolled in college. This percentage currently stands at 48.5 percent, up from 34.9 percent in 1967. However, the pattern is not totally smooth, instead bumping around some in response to economic conditions. College enrollment is driven by an economic decision process, and the opportunity cost (what the potential student could be earning out in the job market) is a very relevant consideration. When the economy is weak, job options are more limited and often less financially attractive. The choice to attend college may make more sense with a dearth of available work. On the other hand, as the job market improves, college becomes more costly in terms of the lost wages that could be earned by entering the workforce instead. A drop in enrollment between 2011 and 2012 fits this criterion, since hiring was picking up over the timeframe.

There is certainly still work to be done to ensure young people are prepared for tomorrow’s workforce, but recent college enrollment figures show important progress.

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