So it happened. According to data released earlier this week by the Department of Education, college enrollments declined.

Some 21,554,004 students were enrolled in college in the fall 2011. That’s down from 21,588,124 the year before. That’s apparently the first time the country has seen the numbers drop since 1996.

According to an article by Doug Lederman in Inside Higher Ed:

It’s possible that enrollments are leveling off (and shrinking slightly) now because the economy had begun rebounding enough by fall 2011 that some of those who had flocked to higher education during the recession began finding jobs. It’s also possible that college tuition levels — which have continued to rise in recent years, driven in part by cutbacks in state support and other traditional sources of colleges’ revenue — are pricing more students out of higher education.

The biggest shifts downward, interestingly enough, were for for-profits, which saw their enrollment numbers decline by 3 percent, the biggest decline in any sector.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer