College Enrollment Is Dropping Like A Rock

By Published on May 15, 2015

College enrollment is still dropping quickly across the U.S., a trend with possibly dire consequences for for-profit colleges and those that expanded too much during the previous boom in enrollments from around 2006 to 2011.

According to a report released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse, a non-profit organization that maintains education records, total college enrollment has dropped 1.9 percent compared to last spring. That may not seem like a big number, but it represents a whopping 400,000 students.

The drop is not equally distributed, however. While public four-year colleges are holding up or even gaining in enrollment, public community colleges and for-profit schools are fading quickly. Community college enrollment dropped 3.9 percent, while for-profit enrollment fell 4.9 percent in a single year.

The quick declines at these institutions are, in part, a reflection of the economy. Both attract large numbers of older students who went back to school as a means to change career fields or improve their prospects after being laid off. As the economy has improved and unemployment has fallen, that supply of students has fallen off. Overall, students age 24 or older accounted for 74 percent of the drop in college enrollment.

In addition to economic factors, however, for-profit schools have been hit hard by a string of scandals and financial calamities that may have turned off some potential customers. Most notably, Corinthian Colleges, once one of the largest for-profit college chains, abruptly collapsed after the federal government cut off its access to student loans, closing down campuses used by tens of thousands of students.

College enrollment has fallen several years in a row, but the 2015 numbers represent a steeper decline than last year, when enrollment fell by only 1 percent. Notably, the decline has started to affect smaller non-profit schools as well, which have struggled to attract additional students wary of taking on heavy student loans to pay their rising tuitions. Private non-profit schools with under 3,000 students declined a severe 2.4 percent.

The brewing trouble for smaller non-profit colleges was shown two months ago when Sweet Briar College, a women’s college in southern Virginia, suddenly announced it would be closing its doors following the 2015 school year.

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