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Has College Enrollment Peaked?

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The number of Americans enrolled in four-year colleges has increased fairly steadily since 1970 but it took a dive between 2011 and 2012. Nationally, according to the September 2013 edition of American Consumers Newsletter, enrollment at four-year colleges plunged by 580,000, or about 5.3%.

Is that drop indicative of a long-term trend? Has enrollment peaked as the cohort of college-age students plateaus and an increasing number decide they can’t justify paying sky-high college tuitions? Does this represent a crisis for higher ed? Or is the decline merely a blip? Enrollments have declined in the past, only to rebound strongly, as shown in the U.S. Census graph.
I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I think it’s a question that we need to start asking ourselves. Here in Virginia, there is no sense in over-investing in college faculty, administration, buildings, dormitories and infrastructure if the demand does not materialize. We also need to be alert to the possibility that public colleges that gambled on increasing head counts may suffer financial difficulties if enrollments (and accompanying tuition payments) don’t meet projections.

Interestingly, Virginia appears to have bucked the trend in 2012. (I say “appears” because the national data is drawn from the U.S. Census, while the state data I use here comes from the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV, so I may not be comparing apples with apples).

Data source: SCHEV

While enrollment tanked nationally, full-time enrollment managed to grow in Virginia by 2,000 between 2011 and 2012. (That was partially offset by a decline in part-time enrollment of 1,500.)

Now, circling back to previous blog posts I’ve made about the indebtedness of Virginia governmental and quasi-governmental institutions, I pose the question: If the downturn in enrollment is a long-term phenomenon, exacerbated by competition from Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other lower cost models for delivering education, and if public colleges have piled up debt in expectation of ever-increasing enrollments, could any of our public institutions find themselves unable to shoulder their debt?

I am not answering that question in the affirmative. Perhaps all of our public institutions are superbly managed and they’re all doing swimmingly well. But I take nothing for granted. I think the question is worth asking.

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