Enrollment in U.S. Colleges Declines for a Second Year

Enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities declined in 2013 for the second straight year as registrations in two-year colleges tumbled.

College enrollment dropped 2.3 percent to 19.5 million, a decline of 463,000, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released today. Enrollment in two-year colleges fell 9.6 percent to 5.27 million students, while four-year college enrollment rose 1.2 percent, according to the report.

A cumulative decline of 930,000 for 2012 and 2013 follows a period of steady increase in higher education sign-ups from 2006 through 2011, when college enrollment rose by 3.2 million, said Kurt Bauman, chief of the Census Bureau’s Education and Social Stratification Branch in Suitland, Maryland. Economic forces, including the recovery from the credit crisis that began in 2008, may have played a role in the trends, he said.

“There’s some research that associates economic hard times with growth in college enrollment,” Bauman said in a telephone interview. “Now there’s a fallback.”

Community colleges, which mainly offer two-year degree programs, have seen a decrease in students since the recession began to abate, said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington. Enrollment in these colleges fell 7 percent in the three year-period ending in 2013, after rising 22 percent over the three years ending in 2010, he said.

Community Colleges

The recent drop “has had major implications for our institutions,” Baime said in a telephone interview. Community colleges “are quite dependent on tuition revenue for overall revenue,” he said.

Last year’s losses in college enrollment were similar in younger and older students, according to the Census report. Registrations among students 21 and younger fell by 261,000 while the enrollment of students older than 25 fell by 247,000. About 40 percent of people in the U.S. ages 18 to 24 years were enrolled in college in the fall of 2013, down from 42 percent two years earlier, according to the Census Bureau.

While the most recent enrollment decline was in two-year programs, the drop in 2012 was mainly felt by four-year colleges, Bauman said. Registration in four-year colleges fell 5.3 percent to 10.3 million that year from 10.9 million in 2011, according to figures released last year.

College enrollment may be affected by a waning number of graduating high school seniors across the country. The high school class of 2012 ushered in a first wave of declines, according to a report issued that year by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Boulder, Colorado. The trend will worsen after 2025, when admissions officers face the impact of a drop in births that began with the recession.

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