US College Enrollment Decline – 2024 Facts & Figures

April 22, 2024

college enrollment decline cliff

Did you know that college enrollment numbers have been declining at a steady rate for over a decade? In fact, undergraduate enrollment is currently down about 8.5% from 2010. In this article, we’ll look at some of the causes for the decline. We’ll also consider what the pending enrollment cliff (predicted to start the 2024-2025 academic year) means for current applicants and incoming college students.

First, though, the data: 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education. If you’d like to nerd out on some numbers, the NCES tracks total undergraduate fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, and provides breakdowns according to attendance status (full or part-time), sex and ethnicity of student, and type of institution (public or private). 

According to the NCES:

  • Undergraduate college enrollment increased from 1985-2010 at a rate of about 2.2% each year. In 2010, enrollment peaked at about 18.1 million students.
  • Since 2011, enrollment has decreased at a rate of about 1.5% each year.
  • Enrollment reached its lowest point in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This overview doesn’t provide the whole story, however, particularly in terms of demographics. The rates of enrollment among men have dropped more significantly than among women. Meanwhile, application and enrollment rates among low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, and other underserved populations have dropped precipitously, especially at two-year institutions.

US College Enrollment Decline – Enrollment Cliff (Continued)

Indeed, declining enrollment has not affected all types of colleges equally. Two-year colleges (both public and private) have experienced sharper declines in enrollment than four-year colleges. In fact, enrollment at four-year public colleges increased slightly from 2011 on.

  • Enrollment at 2-year public colleges decreased by 38% between 2010-2021.
  • Enrollment at 2-year for-profit private colleges decreased by about 59% between 2010-2021.
  • Enrollment at 4-year private for-profit colleges decreased by about 54% between 2010-2021.
  • Enrollment at 4-year public colleges increased by 15.1% between 2010-2021.
  • Enrollment at 4-year non-profit colleges increased by about 2.7% between 2010-2021.

In 2022 and 2023, enrollment ticked back up slightly, but the increase is predicted to be temporary and does not offset the general trend toward declining enrollment. Indeed, by 2023, enrollment had decreased to about 15.8 million students. That’s right: undergraduate college enrollment dropped from 18.1 million to 15.8 million over the last 13 years. Those numbers are significant!

Why is College Enrollment Declining?

There is no single reason for the decline in college enrollment. Instead, there are many contributing (and interrelated) factors, including:

1) Decline in National Birth Rate

It turns out that a major part of the reason behind the anticipated enrollment cliff in 2025 is quite simple. The national birth rate has been declining steadily for…drumroll please…the past 17 years (falling by almost 23% between 2007 and 2022)! Fewer births 17 years ago translates to fewer prospective college students today. Indeed, between 2007-2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national birth rate decreased more rapidly than during any other two-year period in recent history.

The 2007-2009 plummet in births can attributed to the Great Recession, but since then birth rates have continued to fall. The declining birth rate is one major reason why college enrollment rates are not expected to increase significantly until 2037 or so.

2) Decreased Immigration and Vacillating International Enrollment

The foreign-born population in the United States decreased between 2018-2021 due to policy restrictions on immigration and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As with the decreased birth rate, a decrease in the immigrant population translates to a decrease in the college-age population.

Meanwhile, rates of international student enrollment have vacillated considerably recently. The international student population fell from 1,075,000 in 2019-2020 to about 914,000 the following year. But it then surged by 14% in 2022-2023. Rates of international enrollment are particularly sensitive to global affairs as seen by the increase in US college students from India and the decrease in students from China. With international students making up large percentages of some college’s student bodies, any significant or sudden shifts can have rippling effects on enrollment numbers, and on colleges’ revenue (particularly since international students tend to qualify for and receive far less in financial aid).

3) The COVID-19 Pandemic

Even as many colleges acknowledged the disruptions related to the pandemic, and introduced admissions-related policy changes (particularly test-optional policies), enrollment numbers still fell to their lowest levels in 2021. While economists are still analyzing the impact of the pandemic, it is clear that many prospective students’ shifting or uncertain financial circumstances during the pandemic contributed to a sharp decrease in enrollment. We know, for instance, that there were greater pandemic impacts on underrepresented students, and that the effects of the pandemic on certain demographics continue to impact rates of college enrollment.

In addition, students decided against or postponed college enrollment at the height of the pandemic due to health concerns and dissatisfaction with or uncertainty about program changes or online formats. Although some of those factors proved temporary, the pandemic still caused many students to re-evaluate their interests in higher education. While enrollment numbers ticked slightly upwards in 2022 and 2023, the overall effect of the pandemic on college enrollment is lingering.

4) Rising Tuition Costs and Doubts Regarding the “Value” of a College Degree

The average college tuition cost increased yet again during the 2023-2024 academic year across both public and private schools. Moreover, cost-of-living expenses have been rising significantly, affecting the cost of housing, books, and food. New York University’s tuition is $60,438, but with the cost of room and board, books and supplies, and transportation and personal expenses, the total anticipated cost is  $83,250. the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor’s tuition is $17,786 for in-state students and $57,273 for out-of-state students, with a total cost of $34,459 for in-state students and $73,946 for out-of state students. Kenyon College’s tuition is $69,330, with a total cost of $83,800.

Many colleges are amping up affordability and accessibility efforts (see, for instance, the University of California’s Tuition Stability Plan), but the fact is that over the past 20 years—even adjusting for inflation—tuition and fees at private colleges have risen about 40%, out-of-state tuition and fees at public colleges have risen about 38%, and in-state tuition and fees at public colleges have risen a whopping 56%.

US College Enrollment Decline – Enrollment Cliff (Continued)

While political views on the value and purpose of higher education are polarized, there is bipartisan concern about rising tuition costs, and widespread disillusionment with student debt. Despite recent efforts to expand student debt relief programs, or even provide opportunities for debt cancellation, fear of debt remains a significant deterrent for prospective college students and their families.

In addition, many high school students who would previously be considered “college-bound” are exploring options for satisfying and well-paying careers that do not require a college degree. Minimum wages are increasing, unemployment is down, and the proliferation of options for working remotely have mitigated many cost-of-living and transportation-related expenses for many young professionals. All of these factors are likely contributing to the decline in college enrollment.

4) FAFSA Issues

The financial realities of pursuing a college education have been thrown into harsh relief this year due to issues with FAFSA. Each year, more than 17 million students submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA determines a student’s eligibility for all types of financial aid–from federal loans to work-study jobs.

Previously, the FAFSA form was notoriously complex and often yielded inaccurate or incomplete information. In response, Congress recently passed legislation to simplify the form and adjust the formula used to determine aid eligibility. However, the redesigned form has suffered from significant delays and technical glitches. All of these issues have had a significant impact on this year’s application cycle.

US College Enrollment Decline – Enrollment Cliff (Continued)

In particular, colleges are experiencing extreme difficulties compiling aid packages for students. Therefore, rather than receiving financial aid award letters around the same time as offers of admission, many students are currently in the position of having to assess various admission offers without knowing the specifics of their financial aid package. While some colleges are postponing their enrollment deadlines, many (including all eight Ivy League schools) are sticking with May 1 as the traditional “National College Decision Day.” The uncertainty regarding financial aid is expected to contribute to the national enrollment cliff in 2024-2025.

The FAFSA debacle will not impact all colleges equally, however. More expensive colleges and colleges with high percentages of students relying on financial aid packages will feel the effects most acutely. Meanwhile, the FAFSA delays and glitches could translate into an unexpected enrollment boon for affordable and “best value” colleges.

What Does the Enrollment Cliff Mean for Prospective Students?

The expected “enrollment cliff” refers to the fact that the number of college-attending students is predicted to decline significantly this next academic year (and likely beyond next year). The decline can be attributed to both the decrease in birth rates starting 17 years ago and the decrease in the number of students choosing to attend college for a variety of reasons, explored above.

However, the enrollment cliff will not impact all states/regions or types of schools equally. As noted, both 2-year colleges and private colleges will likely witness a greater impact from the enrollment cliff. Contrarily, enrollment at public 4-year colleges will—nationally, at least—probably remain more stable. Meanwhile, as some are predicting, it is likely that schools located in states or regions with declining populations will see more of an enrollment decline.

Moreover, colleges’ financial aid offerings and handling of the FAFSA issues will inform how they will weather the enrollment cliff.

What does all of this mean for the immediate future of prospective students? Generally speaking, the predicted enrollment cliff likely will not translate into higher admission rates this year. This is particularly true at the most competitive schools. Likewise, tuition increases will proceed regardless of the upcoming enrollment cliff.

US College Enrollment Decline – Enrollment Cliff (Continued)

Enrollment declines do hurt revenue, though. Therefore, if enrollment continues to decline (as is almost certain), we will likely see schools scrambling to accommodate by:

  • Cutting offerings (reducing the number of majors, eliminating certain programs or courses, etc.)
  • Continuing to raise tuition and fees
  • Increasing recruitment efforts among international students or other students who can/will pay full tuition

Again, though, the effects of the pending enrollment cliff will be experienced unevenly across types of schools, regions, and demographics.

In the meantime, despite the US college enrollment decline, data demonstrates that Americans continue to associate college education with social and financial mobility. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s educational attainment data, around 44% of Americans 25 and older hold some type of college degree. If, as predicted, enrollment numbers continue to decline in the future, it will remain true that a college degree is required for many types of careers, and adults with college degrees outearn, on average, those without college degrees.

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