Shrinking College Enrollment Threatens the Status Quo

According to The Henchinger Report, “There has been a steady drop in the proportion of high school graduates enrolling in college after they finish high school — from a high of 70 percent in 2016 to 63 percent in 2020, the most recent year for which the figure is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While the pandemic made things worse, the enrollment downturn took hold well before it started; there were already two and a half million fewer students at colleges and universities by the time that Covid set in than there were in 2012. Since that time, another million and a half have disappeared since then.”

The University of Denver seems fine…for now.

Look no further than DU’s National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) member schools St. Cloud State and Western Michigan University. Their declining enrollment figures caught our attention. The student headcount at St. Cloud State has dropped from more than 18,000 in 2010 to about 10,000 last fall. Western Michigan has dropped from 24,500 students to 18,000 students over the last ten years. In the Summit League, Western Illinois has lost students seven years in a row, 4,000 in total. Locally, the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs lost 26% of its students and the University of Northern Colorado lost 25%, putting both among the biggest declines in the nation.  Only six states showed increased enrollment in 2020-21: Hawaii (9%), Utah (7%), Georgia (6%), North Dakota (2%), New Mexico (1%), and Louisiana (1%). Further investigation shows the trend may actually accelerate – why?

What is the best thing DU can do to buck the trend of declining attendance?

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Between 2015 and 2019, Americans’ belief in higher education dropped more than their confidence in any other institution measured by the Gallup polling organization — surprising considering widespread mistrust of the presidency, Congress, big corporations, and the media, especially over the four years in question.

According to Vox, The Incredible Shrinking Future of College, the relationship between demography and higher education trails by two-decades delay. The post-WWII baby boom generation meant that by the 1970s, campuses were bursting at the seams when this group reached early adulthood and women increasingly sought degrees in professions that were finally opening up to them.

Statistics still prove that a collegiate degree is valuable. Workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 67 percent more than people with only high school diplomas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half of “good jobs” — meaning those with salaries of at least $35,000 for workers under age 45 and $45,000 for people between 45 and 64 — call for bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates.

Yet, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of 14 to 18-year-olds who think education is necessary beyond high school has dropped from 60 percent to 45 percent, the study found. More than half of teenagers who are planning on some further education say they are open to something other than a four-year degree.

The United States has already fallen from second to 16th since 2000 among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member nations in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees. The countries ahead of the U.S. on that list have increased their bachelor’s degree attainment during that time by an average of 177 percent, an analysis by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education found.

Many observers have suggested three principal explanations for the falloff: the Covid-19 pandemic,  a dip in the population under the age of 18, and a strong labor market sucking young people straight into the workforce. Of course, cost and relevance of study are other key factors when making the College Decision.

DU also reflects similar demographics of many colleges today, 60% female, and 40% male. Can DU make the curriculum and campus more welcoming to male students? According to The Atlantic, of the recent massive declines in college enrollment, men account for 70% of the decline. While a number of cultural, psychological, and structural reasons may account for the decline, the University of Denver and other institutions of higher education must evaluate the campus environment, course offerings, and recruitment strategies to optimize qualified male students selecting DU as their first choice.

The future of college education is likely to be more flexible, compressed, and affordable as many analysts expect up to 25% of colleges to disappear over the next 20 years. Land grant flagship state universities and elite private colleges are likely to be impacted but survive the turmoil. Still, they must adapt while many junior colleges and small liberal arts colleges face a dark future.

The University of Denver is situated well for now but is not immune from the educational headwinds. Current enrollment is steady and admissions is said to be satisfied with the current applicant pool. The university’s location, size, and academic status are positives but this is not a time for complacency as DU relies on tuition to cover a major portion of operating expenses. Even despite the decreasing relevance of the rankings and the decision of many institutions to withdraw from consideration, moving back into the Top 100 of the US News & World Report college rankings is critical. It would present a ‘value proposition’ to parents and students that justifies DU’s high cost of attendance. But along with that, ensuring that the school maintains a relevant curriculum that drives post-graduate value is equally as important.

One fact remains, the fight for the remaining qualified students from a shrinking pool will only get more difficult moving forward.

3 thoughts on “Shrinking College Enrollment Threatens the Status Quo”

  1. Your writing implies that we were above 100 best colleges but not now.. Is that true? Where are we now? Have we decreased or increased in the last ten or so years/

  2. Several years ago, DU was 80th as ranked by US News. DU was recently ranked #105 by US News.

  3. Tuition cost is important, but academic quality is how institutions will fail or thrive. Look at your examples – St. Cloud is cheaper than the U of MN system – about $10K (U of MN Twin Cities is just under $17k for comparison). But their academics are a joke, and they’ve had dropping enrollment for years, while U of MN has grown. Focus on improving academics to survive. St. Cloud just announced a slew of department closures too – the doom loop is fully activated.

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