A new study largely confirms what anecdotal reports  had anticipated about national college enrollment patterns during the economic downturn: that enrollments of high school students swelled, that larger numbers of students chose community colleges, but that private colleges did not suffer the losses that many had predicted. But the study -- though its data are limited in scope -- also shows that the extent of the shifts, and how different institutions were affected, varied by region.
The report , the first of what is expected to be a series published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, counts only first-time students under the age of 21 who began in the fall term, meaning that both overall first-time enrollment and rates of change are smaller than those reported in IPEDS, which focuses on first-time, full-time students but includes students of all ages and counts them if they entered at any point during an academic year. (The numbers reported in the study, however, are more up-to-date than the most recent IPEDS data .)
It found that annual cohorts of these students at all institutions from 2006-10 remained most stable in the Midwest, that the South and West saw steady growth through 2009 before a drop the next year, and that the Northeast enjoyed a small but steady continuous increase. The South enrolled by far the most each year and, as a consequence, experienced the biggest increases and decreases.
The report comes as the U.S. Education Department, hoping to more effectively track student success across states and institutions, is pushing for  a national longitudinal database to follow students’ progress throughout and after their educations. (Privacy advocates are protesting the record-sharing that such a database would necessitate.) In the meantime, the closest thing to a database of that kind is the National Student Clearinghouse, which collects data from hundreds of institutions nationwide and, unlike the Integrated Postsecondary Education Database System, collects data at the individual student level rather than looking only at institutions.
This allowed the NSC to examine not just retention rates -- continued enrollment within the same college -- but also persistence rates, which track the progress of students who move between institutions of all types and locations. The persistence rates show a decidedly sunnier outlook: nationally, in any given year, persistence rates ranged from 10 to 18 percent higher than retention rates. While both were at their highest nationwide among the 2008 cohort, 64 percent of students who entered college that fall were retained at their institutions the following fall, compared to 77 percent who entered that fall and persisted at some college. (The next year, those numbers dropped by about one and two percentage points, respectively.)
Cliff Adelman, a senior associate with the Institute for Higher Education Policy who for years has argued the importance of tracking persistence over retention, was pleased to see the focus on those rates in the report. But the way the clearinghouse measured the data doesn’t make sense, he said.
“Hats off to them for pushing persistence rates over retention, but it’s an incomplete account of persistence,” Adelman said, noting that measuring calendar-year enrollment would have been more accurate. “There’s something called life that higher education institutions cannot micromanage. And if I decide that my girlfriend moved to Arizona, and I’m in a funk, and I go out to Phoenix this fall and I don’t re-enroll until winter, you’re not counting me. That’s an example of how life gets in the way.”
Doug Shapiro, research director at the NSC Research Center and co-author of the report, said he and his colleagues took this approach to focus on how the recession affected the plans of recent high school graduates specifically -- and because it made for a more digestible, not to mention cheaper, report.
Perhaps the most significant way that this limitation affected the data can be found in the community college sector, where major enrollment shifts would have been even more stark had they included adults returning to college.
It’s hard to draw conclusions from data that are so limited, said Kent Phillippe, associate vice president of research and success at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Certainly, 21-and-younger is an important part of higher education, but clearly in community colleges we serve other students as well…. To some extent this is only part of the story of community colleges,” he said.
Data concerns aside, he said, the 1.6-percent enrollment decrease (which followed three years of smaller or similar rates of increase) is to be expected, given the recent sharp cuts in funding for these institutions, which hit states like California particularly hard. “It’s not necessarily surprising, given the environment in which these colleges were operating, that there was a smaller number of new students coming in.”
Enrollment, persistence and retention fluctuated intensely at Southern community colleges, where a 9.5 percent increase in 2009 was all but wiped out by a 9.1 percent decrease the next year, returning the institutions to 2008 cohort levels. Southern community college students also declined more sharply in levels of retention and persistence from 2008-9, compared to those at other institutions in the region.
Enrollments at public four-year colleges in the South stayed relatively stable throughout the recession, with increases of about 1.5 percent in 2007 and 2008, and decreases of less than 1 percent each following year. Private four-years, meanwhile, saw increases of about 2 percent each year.
The total number of students enrolling in the South increased from 688,000 in the 2006 cohort to 764,000 in the 2009 cohort, before dropping to 737,000 the next year. And while Shapiro believes the enrollment patterns have more to do with regional high school graduation rates than anything else, Alan Richard, director of communications at the Southern Regional Education Board, believes the economy is a key factor, too.
“Obviously, the cost of college is rising substantially, right when we need major increases in the numbers of students who complete college degrees and technical certificates. So we think those rising costs may be having an impact,” Richard said. Tuition and fees in the South on average rose 74 percent from 1998-2008 at public four-year colleges, he said, and 45 percent at public two-year institutions. That’s significantly higher than the national averages of 48 and 28 percent, respectively.
Richard added that many state high schools are graduating more students than in the past. “Our demographics are shifting dramatically and quickly, and while many of the Southern states have struggled with high school graduation rates, there really have been some substantial increases by any measure in recent years.”
A notable shift occurred in the Northeast, where fewer students entered private four-year colleges while more entered public two-year ones. Community college enrollment rates were relatively consistent with those at public four-year institutions, which hovered around a 30 percent share of enrollments. Overall enrollment rose steadily from 401,000 in 2006 to 436,000 in 2010, perhaps because the large concentration of elite private institutions in the region attract students from across the country, the authors suggest.
Retention and persistence rates at four-year publics in the Northeast, only slightly lower than the rates at their private counterparts, were the highest of any region. Throughout the years, persistence hovered around 90 percent and retention stayed around the 77 percent mark.
The difference between retention and persistence was as high as 16.5 percent at Midwestern community colleges, where the rates mirrored each other in year-to-year fluctuation. In 2007, at about 61 and 50 percent, respectively, the rates were the lowest of any region. But they rebounded to beat out their regional peers in 2008, with respective rates of 65 and 50 percent.
Enrollment at Midwestern institutions generally, second-highest in the nation, declined from 491,000 students in 2006 and 2007 to 489,000 students the following year, but then rose to 507,000 over the course of the next two years.
About 80 percent of these students attended public institutions during the recession, and, on average, they were fairly evenly split between four-year and two-year colleges, though by 2010 about 2 percent of those students had shifted from the former to the latter.
With 90 percent of Western students in the public sector, far more students attended community colleges there than in the Midwest -- and far fewer attended private institutions. Four-year public enrollment fluctuated, starting at 38.1 percent in 2006 and ending at 37.5 percent in 2010; two-year colleges followed a similar pattern but in 2010 enrolled 50.8 percent of students, making for an overall decline of 0.1 percentage points throughout the recession.
Overall enrollment at Western colleges increased steadily from 417,000 in 2006 to 467,000 in 2009, before dropping to 455,000 in 2010.
In persistence and retention, Western institutions of different types overlapped more than did institutions in other regions. Public four-year universities had the highest rates, and the gap between persistence there and at private colleges grew as the recession progressed. The report suggests that students at expensive private colleges were dropping out under financial pressure, and students at four-year publics migrated to cheaper institutions. From 2006 to 2009, persistence shifted from about 83 percent in both sectors to 85 percent at publics and 79 percent at privates. “These possibilities,” the report reads, “supported by theory and research on college enrollment during economic recessions, offer some source of explanation, although it is important to acknowledge that more factors were in play than the economy alone.”