It's official: Higher education is shrinking, for the first time in at least 15 years.
Total enrollment at American colleges and universities eligible for federal financial aid fell slightly in the fall of 2011 from the year before, according to preliminary data released Tuesday  by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.
The data from the department's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System show that 21,554,004 students were enrolled in fall 2011, down from 21,588,124 in fall 2010. While that drop is smaller than two-tenths of one percent, it is the first such dip since at least 1996, according to officials at NCES.
In many ways the result is not surprising; college enrollments boomed in the late 2000s, as they often do during recessions, as workers lost jobs and sought to retool or opted to continue their educations because they didn't like their prospects for employment.
So it's possible that enrollments are leveling off (and shrinking slightly) now because the economy had begun rebounding enough by fall 2011 that some of those who had flocked to higher education during the recession began finding jobs. It's also possible that college tuition levels -- which have continued to rise in recent years, driven in part by cutbacks in state support and other traditional sources of colleges' revenue -- are pricing more students out of higher education.
Whatever the reasons, the data -- if they persist -- could pose a problem for the many policy makers and advocates seeking to increase higher education attainment. While many of those promoting the "completion agenda" are focusing on improving the performance of students who are already in college, they also strive to increase the level of college-going, particularly for those historically underrepresented in higher education.
Who Is Going, and Where Are They Going?
The most recent data offer some early clues about which students are enrolling (and choosing not to), and which institutions are likely to benefit (and not). Over all, the statistics favor part-time and minority students over full-time and white students, and four-year and private nonprofit over two-year and public and for-profit colleges and universities.
As seen in the table below, the biggest swings in institutional enrollments were for private nonprofit colleges (up nearly 2 percent) and for-profit institutions (down 3 percent). Declines in two-year enrollments drove most of the decrease for the for-profit sector and kept public college enrollments from growing, more than offsetting an increase of more than 120,000 in enrollment at four-year public colleges. California's community colleges have restricted their enrollment  because of budget cuts in the last two to three years, which could account for much of the two-year-college decline nationally (and could suggest that community colleges elsewhere have fared all right).
In addition to the demographic and economic changes that might have driven the enrollment patterns, the federal government's crackdown on for-profit colleges -- and changes that individual colleges have made in response -- may have driven at least some of the enrollment losses for the institutions .
Students enrolled part time edged upward, while the number of students enrolled full time dipped. Reasonable speculation is that more students shifted from full-time to part-time status because of their ability or need (or both) to work.
The number of Latino students enrolled rose particularly sharply in 2011.
Enrollment at Title IV-Eligible Colleges, Fall 2010 and 2011
|Fall 2010||Fall 2011||% Change|
|Less Than 2-Year||404,351||398,961||-1.35%|
|2 or More Races||312,127||414,406||24.68%|