Fewer People Going to College Is Good News

During and after the recession of 2007 through 2009, college enrollment grew rapidly. That was partly just millennial-generation demographics: there were 3.5 million more 18- through 24-year-olds in the U.S. in 2010 than a decade earlier (and about 750,000 more than there are now). But the percentage of young Americans attending college and graduate school also hit an all-time high in 2011.

The brief-but-sharp 2020 recession and its aftermath are already shaping up a lot differently for college enrollment. Census Bureau data released last week, included in the above chart, shows a modest 0.7-percentage-point overall enrollment decline from the previous year as of October 2020 — albeit with an interesting divergence between men (down 1.5 points) and women (down 0.2).

Meanwhile, the word from colleges themselves is that the enrollment declines have continued in 2021, with two-year colleges seeing by far the biggest drop. Spring 2021 higher-education enrollment was down by 603,000 students, or 3.5%, from the year before, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Two-year colleges accounted for most of that with a decline of 476,000, or 9.5%, most of which was among 18-to-24-year-olds. Preliminary fall numbers released today show continued if slowing declines for two-year schools and a possibly bigger drop than earlier this year for four-year schools.

The declines also aren’t evenly distributed among four-year colleges, with commuter schools reporting enrollment drops while the numbers grew at more elite schools. The Indiana University system, which has a flagship campus in Bloomington, an urban campus shared with Purdue University in Indianapolis and regional campuses in Gary, Kokomo, New Albany, Richmond and South Bend, has some of the best and timeliest data (already updated through fall) on these diverging fortunes.

Indiana University also has enrollment statistics by age, and the breakdown for its regional campuses is intriguing.