Has College Enrollment Peaked? A Study of Enrollment Trends Since 2000

Enrollment in postsecondary institutions --- colleges and universities --- has been on a multi-year decline. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment in the U.S. has decreased for the eighth consecutive year as of May 2019. How can enrollment be declining when everyday it seems as though more and more high school students are going off to college? How can college enrollment be declining while at the same time student loan debt climbs higher and higher?

The decline in college enrollment is more complex than it simply being a decline in high school students going on to college. In fact, declines in college enrollment by high schoolers are not the main contributor to this overall decline in enrollment. Demographics and economics play a large role in influencing college enrollment trends. Read on to find out why enrollment in postsecondary schools have been on the decline for nearly a decade and what the future holds for them

Since the turn of the millennium, the general trend of college enrollment has been that of a decade of growth, from 2001 to roughly 2010-11, followed by nearly a decade of continuous, gradual decline, 2011-12 to 2018-19. And this pattern holds up on the state-level for the majority of U.S. states. Using data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), BrokeScholar analyzed the college enrollment trends of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Here's a look at some of the most notable college enrollment trends by state.

College Enrollment by State

Most states --- 45 of them --- exhibit a similar pattern to that of the national trend in postsecondary school enrollment: College enrollment increased from 2001-02 to around 2009-12, and then has declined since those peaks. The biggest drop was experienced by Iowa, which peaked with 576,698 students enrolled in college in 2010-11. Enrollment then dropped by 50.5% so that by 2018-19, enrollment was down to 285,582. Arizona saw a large decline as well, with enrollment starting at 627,711 in 2001-02, peaking at 1.26 million in 2010-11, before declining by 30.1% down to 882,234 in 2018-19.

College Enrollment from 2001-02 to 2018-19 in the U.S.

State Enrollment 2001-02 Enrollment 2010-11 Enrollment 2018-19 Change 2001-2019 Change 2001-2019 Change 2001-2019
Alabama 319,831 433,128 393,813 35.4% -9.1% 23.1%
Alaska 54,652 59,899 42,020 9.6% -29.8% -23.1%
Arizona 627,711 1,261,725 882,234 101.0% -30.1% 40.5%
Arkansas 178,098 235,641 203,628 32.3% -13.6% 14.3%
California 3,714,644 3,905,457 3,752,591 5.1% -3.9% 1.0%
Colorado 415,558 539,127 506,527 29.7% -6.0% 21.9%
Connecticut 224,898 278,341 258,930 23.8% -7.0% 15.1%
D.C. 115,015 115,565 117,812 0.5% 1.9% 2.4%
Delaware 62,286 74,368 76,119 19.4% 2.4% 22.2%
Florida 1,188,134 1,688,911 1,507,121 42.1% -10.8% 26.8%
Georgia 535,204 792,222 697,279 48.0% -12.0% 30.3%
Hawaii 91,225 102,986 80,043 12.9% -22.3% -12.3%
Idaho 99,063 129,596 189,935 30.8% 46.6% 91.7%
Illinois 1,216,389 1,411,000 1,057,788 16.0% -25.0% -13.0%
Indiana 461,348 631,304 590,417 36.8% -6.5% 28.0%
Iowa 261,263 576,698 285,582 120.7% -50.5% 9.3%
Kansas 286,136 311,245 288,810 8.8% -7.2% 0.9%
Kentucky 276,445 380,127 332,160 37.5% -12.6% 20.2%
Louisiana 312,640 352,077 311,370 12.6% -11.6% -0.4%
Maine 78,967 95,258 93,842 20.6% -1.5% 18.8%
Maryland 408,422 514,624 480,327 26.0% -6.7% 17.6%
Massachusetts 569,917 664,755 630,769 16.6% -5.1% 10.7%
Michigan 834,682 945,391 687,931 13.3% -27.2% -17.6%
Minnesota 415,547 631,862 555,000 52.1% -12.2% 33.6%
Mississippi 185,870 238,334 216,502 28.2% -9.2% 16.5%
Missouri 473,333 626,341 475,053 32.3% -24.2% 0.4%
Montana 58,144 68,862 62,289 18.4% -9.5% 7.1%
Nebraska 168,651 207,227 175,194 22.9% -15.5% 3.9%
Nevada 136,160 185,853 158,657 36.5% -14.6% 16.5%
New Hampshire 88,357 101,540 232,218 14.9% 128.7% 162.8%
New Jersey 482,231 618,232 555,167 28.2% -10.2% 15.1%
New Mexico 173,224 225,197 169,137 30.0% -24.9% -2.4%
New York 1,405,307 1,725,299 1,596,949 22.8% -7.4% 13.6%
North Carolina 554,073 768,731 709,602 38.7% -7.7% 28.1%
North Dakota 53,064 71,012 65,133 33.8% -8.3% 22.7%
Ohio 796,781 1,031,348 861,499 29.4% -16.5% 8.1%
Oklahoma 269,811 330,731 276,067 22.6% -16.5% 2.3%
Oregon 302,308 380,583 332,157 25.9% -12.7% 9.9%
Pennsylvania 826,411 1,050,331 868,843 27.1% -17.3% 5.1%
Rhode Island 99,352 107,468 97,502 8.2% -9.3% -1.9%
South Carolina 259,840 336,949 299,715 29.7% -11.1% 15.3%
South Dakota 60,206 74,876 72,136 24.4% -3.7% 19.8%
Tennessee 352,610 466,926 416,392 32.4% -10.8% 18.1%
Texas 1,608,736 2,184,169 2,214,334 35.8% 1.4% 37.6%
Utah 265,444 357,069 495,823 34.5% 38.9% 86.8%
Vermont 44,690 60,254 56,968 34.8% -5.5% 27.5%
Virginia 553,835 789,344 717,075 42.5% -9.2% 29.5%
Washington 508,213 566,232 504,420 11.4% -10.9% -0.7%
West Virginia 119,235 235,400 202,762 97.4% -13.9% 70.1%
Wisconsin 427,162 513,712 424,914 20.3% -17.3% -0.5%
Wyoming 43,825 54,040 42,962 23.3% -20.5% -2.0%

There are five exceptions to this pattern: New Hampshire, Idaho, Utah, Delaware and Texas, plus the District of Columbia. In New Hampshire, enrollment only rose by 14.9% from 2001-02 to 2010-11, from 88,357 to 101,540 college students. But then, enrollment exploded by 128.7%, rising from 101,540 in 2010-11 to 232,218 in 2018-19. In Idaho, growth in enrollment has been steadier but still robust. From 99,063 students in the 2001-02 school year, enrollment grew by 30.8%, reaching 129,596 students in 2010-11. From there, it rose by 46.6%, with enrollment reaching 189,935 college students in 2018-19. Utah also experienced almost uninterrupted growth too, seeing its enrollment rise from 265,444 in 2001-02 to 357,069 in 2010-11 (34.5%), and from 357,059 to 495,823 in 2018-19 (38.9%).

There were a few states that have experienced outright declines in enrollment since 2001-02. For instance, in Alaska, college enrollment in 2018-19 is down 23.1% from 2001-02, with 42,020 students enrolled compared to 54,652. Alaska experienced the biggest decline in enrollments, followed by Michigan (-17.6%), Illinois (-13%), Hawaii (-12.3%), New Mexico (-2.4%), Wyoming (-2%), Rhode Island (-1.9%), Washington (-0.7%), Wisconsin (-0.5%), Louisiana (-0.4%).

Peak in College Enrollment? It's Not So Simple

We come to the big question of: What is behind this almost decade-long decline in college enrollment? Several factors are at play when it comes to this question. A big factor is the role played by for-profit colleges over the past 20 years, which saw dramatic growth the first decade or so before falling off substantially. Another related factor is the conversion of for-profit colleges to nonprofit colleges, as Grand Canyon University has done recently. This in part contributes to the decline in for-profit enrollment and the overall decline as well. However, there is still more to the story of college enrollment decline.

Community colleges are another important player in this overall decline in college enrollment. Whereas four-year public institutions experienced a drop of 0.9% in enrollment from 2018 to 2019, community colleges witnessed a decline of 3.4%. Meanwhile, private four-year college enrollment grew by 3.2%, however, this also includes the schools that converted from for-profit to nonprofit, as previously mentioned.

Community colleges, like for-profit colleges, have disproportionately more "non-traditional" or adult students, those over the age of 24. This demographic has been especially responsible for much of the decline in college enrollment seen since 2010. So, while the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported in 2015 that college enrollment decreased 1.9% over the prior year, the downward trend was mostly driven by students over the age of 24. Indeed, that demographic accounted for 74% of the decline.

Below you'll find a breakdown of the change in enrollment from the previous year from Fall 2015 through Spring 2019, based on data from Inside Higher Ed.

Percent Change from Previous Year in Enrollment by Sector

Type of Institution Fall 2015 Spring 2016 Fall 2016 Spring 2017 Fall 2017 Spring 2018 Fall 2018 Spring 2019
All Sectors -1.7% -1.3% -1.4% -1.5% -1.0% -1.3% -1.7% -1.7%
4-Year Public 0.8% 1.0% 0.2% 0.2% -0.2% -0.2% 0.0% -0.9%
4-Year Private Nonprofit -0.3% 0.7% -0.6% -0.2% -0.4% -0.4% 2.4% 3.2%
4-Year For-Profit -13.7% -9.3% -14.5% -10.1% -7.1% -6.8% -15.1% -19.7%
2-Year Public -2.9% -3.3% -2.6% -2.5% -1.7% -2.0% -3.2% -3.4%

As you can see, four-year for-profit schools are responsible for much of the decline seen in overall college enrollment. In spring 2019, four-year for-profit schools experienced a decline of almost 20% in enrollments compared to the previous year. Every spring and fall period since 2015, four-year for-profit colleges have seen a decline in their enrollment numbers from the year prior. The other negative trend --- enrollment in community colleges or two-year public schools --- is very apparent here as well. Two-year public schools have consistently experienced declines every spring and fall since 2015.

It's important to bear in mind the age of students who often attend four-year for-profit and two-year public schools. Students here are disproportionately older students and this demographic tend to factor immediate employment opportunities into their decision-making process. This is in contrast to high school graduates with immediate plans for college and campus life. Similarly, the average high school graduate may view college as the forthcoming next step, while those over the age of 24 tend to view college campus as a place to weather economic downturns. This perhaps explains why enrollment has been declining in these schools so much because, since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009, the U.S. economy went on a decade-long period of expansion that ended only with the Covid-19-induced recession of 2020. All that economic growth requires labor, and ideally, educated labor, hence a shift by adult students out of schools and into the workforce.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has utterly transformed the landscape of higher education. All norms and assumptions taken for granted have been cast asunder. Colleges and college towns are feeling the squeeze on their finances. As revenues dry up, many small colleges are in danger of closing down. Many schools have already taken steps to cut costs through furloughs, layoffs and the closing down of entire major and minor degree programs. This kind of damage will almost certainly lead to a decline in college enrollment for the foreseeable future. However, it could produce other trends, even positive ones, as well.

As mentioned before, economic downturns can often induce people over the age of 24 to start or complete their education. This is something that occurred to an extent during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and could happen again as the U.S. steadily recovers from the effects of the pandemic. The new importance placed on virtual, at-home learning and working by the pandemic will undoubtedly influence colleges and universities for the foreseeable future. With greater online access to education, both nonprofit and for-profit, it wouldn't be surprising to see an uptick in enrollment in the next few years. At the same time, the disruption to normal campus life on colleges could act as a major damper on new applications and admissions to college. This would of course drive future college enrollment down.