The Economy Is Improving. That Means Fewer People Want to Go to College

For the second straight year, the number of people starting college fell in 2013, new government data show, as a recovering job market drew adults away from classrooms and toward paid work. The drop represents the biggest two-year decline in enrollment since before the Great Recession.

Two-year colleges took the greatest hit, seeing enrollment fall 10 percent even as enrollment ticked up 1 percent at four-year colleges, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Wednesday. When the economy is weak, people tend to seek education to improve their prospects or wait out a shaky job market. As jobs return, some who might have chosen college take more readily available opportunities instead. Community colleges and trade schools are particularly vulnerable to this trend, since they’re seen as teaching practical skills and therefore are most in demand when jobs are scarce.

Enrollment surged at many community colleges around October 2009, when the U.S. unemployment rate climbed to a 26-year high. In fact, higher education more broadly became quite attractive during that time: More students enrolled in college from 2006 to 2011 than in the 10 years leading up to 2006.

In 2013, 463,000 fewer young adults enrolled in college than in 2012, suggesting that the recession-induced enrollment spike is over. While the economy remains weak in some areas, it has begun to pick up steam. The Federal Reserve hinted in recent months that it would slowly raise interest rates from rock bottom as economic indicators, such as jobless claims, consumer confidence, and GDP, point to a slow but steady recovery.

That’s good news for job-seekers but not for tuition-dependent colleges, which could find themselves on the cusp of financial failure if they do not attract enough students.

Other takeaways from the Census Bureau’s numbers: Neither age nor race seemed to make a difference in the latest decline in college enrollment. The drop was equally divided between the young and the old, and enrollment stalled among Hispanic students, black students, and Asian students in 2013.
 
All told, roughly 19.5 million people enrolled in college in 2013.

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