'' The Silver Lining in College Enrollment Data - The Online Learning Curve

The Silver Lining in College Enrollment Data

Recently, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its spring enrollment report, showing yet another semester where overall college enrollment has declined. Although that makes it three years in a row where spring enrollment has declined, as well as dips in the fall, there are some silver linings in these data.

It Could Be, and Has Been, Worse

The slide this spring is less than year’s past in terms of overall higher education enrollment, a 0.8% decline compared to the 2.3% decline experienced between spring 2012/13. This rate is also smaller than what was experienced this past fall, where enrollments slid 1.5% from the previous fall semester.

The Slide Isn’t Across the Board

Not only was the spring enrollment decline not as severe as past regressions, some areas of higher education actually experienced an increase in enrollments.


% Change from Spring 2013

Public, 4 year


Private, 4 year


For-profit, 4 year


Public, 2 year




Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center Spring 2014 Term Enrollment Estimates Report

Four-year publics and privates actually saw an increase in their spring enrollments compared to the significant decline experienced by the four-year for-profit sector. Community colleges saw nearly a 3% decline from spring 2013. Theories around the increase on the four-year public and private side center around better student retention as well the possible proliferation of online degree programs added to help stave off the recent, and possible future declines, in traditional-aged students many of these institutions focus upon.

Online education, which for nearly a decade operated on the fringes of higher education, has grown to the point of becoming nearly mainstream. “New” IPEDS data shows that in 2012, 13% of all college students were enrolled in exclusively distance coursework and 26% were taking at least some distance education courses. And that was two years ago in a market that, although many have said has slowed in growth, no one has said it has declined at a rate mirroring overall higher education. Schools that have continued to embrace online education have likely been able to control their possible enrollment declines somewhat, if not actually reverse them. Although the investments made were likely great, these investments may have started to pay off for some of these 4-year schools.

But what about the for-profits? They are still struggling with a negative image, regulatory issues that are curtailing their expansion efforts, and are still reinventing themselves. They will come back at some point in the future, but spring 2014 is not that time.

The Trads are Coming

Part-time students declined at a faster rate compared to full-time students (1.4% compared to 0.5%), leaving many to speculate that these are adults finding jobs in an improving economy. Couple this with the overall gain at public and private 4-year schools and that the bulk of those gains were from full-time students, some have speculated that this could be a sign that decline in traditional-aged students is perhaps not as bad as once feared.

Over the last few years, data has shown that the number of high school students graduating is declining, a prime source of the overall U.S. college population. With fewer students to go around, enrollments have declined and schools have increasingly awarded more scholarships to lure students. This is supposed to put the private institutions at a disadvantage, given that public institutions are generally less expensive. However, this data appears to buck that trend and theory.

Not So Fast, We Aren’t Out of the Woods Yet

Given my personal background at looking at data and statistics, I would caution that one data point does not a trend make. I think more tough terms are ahead, but hopefully in the age of data and information, higher education leaders have been able to make the proper level of investments in diversifying their target audience and delivery method that they are weathering the storm better than originally thought. The demographic changes currently underway with traditional-aged students do not lie and there will continue to be a short supply of 18 year old students for traditional higher education to enroll so the more investments a school can make in adding new options for non-traditional populations, the better they will be able to offset the continued declines.

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