The Incredible Shrinking Higher Ed Industry

Number of U.S. colleges and universities that award federal financial aid fell by 5.6 percent in 2018-19, to lowest mark in two decades.

October 14, 2019
 

Higher education enrollments have been falling for years, a well-documented outcome that can be attributed to some combination of a strong U.S. economy, changes in birth rates and, perhaps, growing doubts about the value of a college degree.

Another decline is also unfolding -- this one attributable to a mix of economic and political forces: the number of colleges and universities in the United States is at its lowest ebb since at least 1998.

Data released by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics Friday included statistics on a range of topics, including total head count of enrolled students through 2017-18 and the number of colleges and universities in the most recent academic year, 2018-19.

The enrollment data confirm what most college officials who've been paying attention already know: that the number of people enrolled in U.S. colleges has tumbled since the recession, dropping from a total head-count peak of 29.5 million in 2010-11 to 26.4 million in 2017-18.

The overall decline of more than 10 percent has been fueled by drops of 47 percent and 23 percent in total head-count enrollments in for-profit and community colleges in that seven-year period, and despite increases in enrollment at public four-year colleges (12.2 percent) and four-year private nonprofit colleges (5.2 percent) during that time.

Those enrollment trends have been fairly well documented, both by federal data and those reported regularly by the National Student Clearinghouse.

Less frequently examined, however, are what has happened to colleges and universities themselves over that time. In total, the number of American colleges and universities eligible to award federal financial aid fell to 6,138 in 2018-19, down 5.6 percent from 6,502 the year before.

As seen both in the chart below and the table at bottom, different sectors of higher education have experienced very different patterns over the last decade -- some better understood than others.

  • For-profit colleges exploded in number during the (countercyclical) boom years during and immediately after the recession, when displaced workers flooded into vocational programs, drawn both by the sometimes realistic promise of more training and better wages and by sometimes cynical (if not illegal) marketing tactics. The improvement of the economy in the early part of this decade, combined with the regulatory crackdown on for-profit colleges by the Obama administration, cut those numbers almost in half.
  • The number of public four-year colleges has grown fairly steadily throughout the last 20 years, although a fair bit of that growth has resulted from the transformation of what were once community colleges into four-year institutions, as they began offering significant numbers of bachelor's degrees. The resulting decline in the number of public two-year institutions, of more than 20 percent, can also be at least partially attributable to that shift.
  • The number of four-year private colleges grew during most of the last two decades but has dropped by a little over a percentage point in the last three years. That may be due to an uptick in the number of closures and mergers of private institutions.

Number of U.S. Postsecondary Institutions Awarding Federal Aid, by Sector

Academic Year All Institutions Public 4-year Private nonprofit 4-year Private
for-profit 4-year
Public 2-year Private nonprofit
2-year
Private
for-profit 2-year
Public
< 2-year
Private nonprofit
< 2-year
Private
for-profit, < 2-year
2002-03 6,354 632 1,558 300 1,155 251 764 264 112 1,318
2003-04 6,412 635 1,564 351 1,162 233 783 250 116 1,318
2004-05 6,383 640 1,543 370 1,143 225 793 244 107 1,318
2005-06 6,463 641 1,551 408 1,154 219 821 218 96 1,355
2006-07 6,536 644 1,548 453 1,148 211 844 217 89 1,382
2007-08 6,551 654 1,547 490 1,132 181 857 218 87 1,385
2008-09 6,632 653 1,551 530 1,127 183 893 217 75 1,403
2009-10 6,742 673 1,553 564 1,094 176 963 222 80 1,417
2010-11 7,021 679 1,556 650 1,083 174 1,018 253 82 1,526
2011-12 7,234 683 1,566 734 1,072 185 1,048 256 79 1,611
2012-13 7,253 690 1,566 782 1,035 176 1,030 256 78 1,640
2013-14 7,236 692 1,597 761 1,028 162 1,019 260 75 1,642
2014-15 7,151 701 1,596 726 1,020 158 954 243 73 1,680
2015-16 7,021 710 1,602 700 1,007 171 881 248 86 1,616
2016-17 6,606 737 1,588 514 981 158 830 240 77 1,481
2017-18 6,502 751 1,597 488 969 154 782 235 75 1,451
2018-19 6,138 769 1,583 358 955 138 612 228 59 1,436

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Inside Higher Ed Careres

Search Over 35,000 Jobs

Browse all jobs on Inside Higher Ed Careers »

 
+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top