Thursday, May 28, 2020

For Nation's Colleges, No Growth Is Best-Case Scenario

Among high school graduates in 2019, fully 66 percent were enrolled in college by October 2019. This is not a record high enrollment rate, but it's close. The record high of 70 percent was reached in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as the high unemployment rate of the Great Recession drove young adults onto college campuses. Will the college enrollment rate of 2020 rise due to the high unemployment rate of the coronavirus pandemic? Or will the college enrollment rate of 2020 decline because of Covid-19 fears and confusion?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics' recently released projections, college enrollment will rise slowly but surely in every year from now through 2028, the end of the projection period. Of course the projections were produced before the coronavirus pandemic. From 19.9 million students enrolled in college in 2019, the NCES projects that the number will inch above 20 million in 2023 and reach 20.3 million in 2028. That kind of stability—once seen as troublesome for a system of higher education accustomed to robust enrollment growth—would be very good news.

College enrollment in the United States peaked in 2010 at just over 21 million—37 percent higher than in 2000. Since 2010, enrollment has been drifting downward as the economy recovered from the Great Recession, luring young adults away from college campuses and into offices and factories. Colleges had been struggling to adapt to the no-growth environment before coronavirus hit. Now they would welcome no growth over the alternative—an enrollment plunge.

College enrollment for selected years, 2000 to 2028 (in millions)
2000: 15.3
2010: 21.0
2019: 19.9
2020: 19.9
2025: 20.2
2028: 20.3

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Projections of Education Statistics to 2028

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