The Most Important Change Coming to College: Fewer Students

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People, particularly in admissions, have worried about this for years. The baby boom of the 1980s and 90s, coupled with robust American housing market, greatly increased the demand for college, which meant many American universities could become more selective (more students applying means your total admit rate can go down) and nonselective colleges could count on a steady stream of students eager to enroll.

All of that might be over. Richard Perez-Pena writes in a piece in the New York Times:

College enrollment fell 2 percent in 2012-13, the first significant decline since the 1990s, but nearly all of that drop hit for-profit and community colleges; now, signs point to 2013-14 being the year when traditional four-year, nonprofit colleges begin a contraction that will last for several years. The college-age population is dropping after more than a decade of sharp growth, and many adults who opted out of a forbidding job market and went back to school during the recession have been drawn back to work by the economic recovery.

Hardest hit are likely to be colleges that do not rank among the wealthiest or most prestigious, and are heavily dependent on tuition revenue, raising questions about their financial health — even their survival.

He reports that this year two colleges, Loyola University New Orleans and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, found that after the May 1 deadline for making decisions passed, they didn’t have enough students. Loyola called many students who had been admitted and decided not to attend and tried to persuade them to enter. Apparently in many cases the college just paid the deposit fees to other schools. St. Mary’s reopened admissions. Virginia’s Randolph College, anxious to avid such problems, apparently sent acceptance letters and financial aid to students who hadn’t even applied.

These are just anecdotes, but they highlight a trend that’s troubling for many colleges that aren’t particularly selective: there may not be enough students to fill the colleges in the future.

College attendance grew dramatically in the last 20 years. There were 15.2 million college students in 1999 and 20.4 million in 2011. And now it’s going down. And that’s largely because, Perez-Pena explains, “the number of Americans turning 18 hit its recent peak in 2009, and will continue to decline through 2016.”

And colleges are going to have to address this, by either getting smaller or going out of business.

The big shift in higher education in the next few years might not have anything to do with changes in financial aid policy, what President Barack Obama says about reigning in higher ed costs, Massive Open Online Courses, or even the Oregon scheme to have students pay for college after they graduate; it looks like it may just be the laws of supply and demand. Colleges just can’t operate the way they do now if there are fewer students interested in attending.

The full implications of this trend remain to be seen (would colleges have to charge less, too?). One thing is pretty clear, however: it’s going to get a lot easier for high school students to get in to college than it’s been in recent years.

Daniel Luzer

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