Something To Keep An Eye On: College Enrollment Has Dropped Substantially Since 2012

Here is some surprising and unpleasant news: enrollment rates have dropped in each of the last two years, a sharp divergence from several decades of growth. The figure below shows enrollment rates in the first quarter of every year since 1985 for people age 20-24. (Note: enrollment here is technically for college, university, or high school enrollment, but very few people age 20-24 are enrolled in high school.) Enrollment was on a general upward trend since 1985, but peaked in 2012 and has since dropped in each of the last two years. The fact that this is a two-year drop suggests that it isn’t just a one-year fluke in a volatile series.

The dotted line shows the linear trend based on 1989-2007 data (the trend line since 2007 thus shows what enrollment rates would have been in the last seven years if they had simply continued on their long-run path over this period). The data are somewhat variable year-to-year, but this shows that between 2007 and 2013, there was no meaningful departure from the long term trend, but that by 2014, enrollment was substantially below the long-run trend. This drop in enrollment rates is worrisome, particularly to the extent that it is due to students being forced to drop out of school, or never enter, either because the lack of decent work in the weak recovery meant they could not put themselves through school or because their parents were unable to help them pay for school due to their own income or wealth losses during the Great Recession and its aftermath.enrollment rate


  • Sara Goldrick-Rab

    This decline is also evident among students who are academically prepared for college (using the NCES education studies) but is occurring only for those in the bottom 75% of the income distribution. The top 25% are steadily increasing their enrollment. On Monday, Nancy Kendall and I will release a new paper that describes this and our recommend policy response. Watch the Lumina Foundation website front page for that paper, Monday at 930 am.

  • static

    the cost of a four year degree at a traditional university or college is prohibitively expensive with the only possible way to pay for it is to incur a ridiculous amount of debt. why is this trend a surprise to anyone? it is simple economics.