The Enrollment Slowdown

February 28, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Nearly three million more people will be enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2022 than were enrolled in 2012, according to Education Department projections released Thursday. That would represent a significant slowdown in enrollment growth over the next decade compared to the last one, but the projection is still aggressive given that the traditional college-age population is expected to decline over the same period.

The enrollment figures were contained in a broader report, "Projections of Education Statistics to 2022," released by the National Center for Education Statistics; it also contains data about elementary and secondary school enrollments and teaching staffs and high school graduations, among other things.

The report qualifies the postsecondary enrollment projections in several ways: it notes that they do not account for such factors as "the cost of a college education, the economic value of an education, and the impact of distance learning due to technological changes," which it notes "may produce changes in enrollment levels." But the report also points out that the agency's track record is pretty good over the past 15 years; 10 years out, its projections have been within 13 percent of the actual total.

Those caveats aside, the report projects continued growth in college enrollments, as seen in the table below. Over all, the number of students enrolled at degree-granting institutions in the United States would grow by 13.9 percent from 2012 to 2022.

That would seem to be a big drop-off from the nearly 45 percent growth that the report documents from 1997 to 2011 (50 percent at the undergraduate level). But over that period, the number of Americans aged 18 to 24 grew by 21 percent, so the demographic trends drove between a third and a half of the increase, says Nate Johnson of Postsecondary Analytics, a higher ed data expert.

Over the next decade, Johnson notes, the 18-to-24-year-old population is projected to decline by 4 percent, so the 13.9 percent increase from 2012-22 (and the projected 13 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment) "is pretty significant growth while the underlying population is declining," Johnson said.

The report projects men to continue to lose ground (with their enrollments growing at about half the rate for women), exacerbating existing worries about the gender gap and the declining representation of men in higher education. The enrollment of part-time students would grow at a faster clip than would the number of full-time students, and graduate education would see enrollments grow more than undergraduate programs would.

And different sectors of higher education would grow at roughly comparable paces, but there is another asterisk to add to the data: the "private" category includes both independent nonprofit institutions and for-profit colleges, an Education Department spokesman confirmed.

Projected Enrollments in U.S. Degree-Granting Institutions, 2012-2022 (in 000s)

  2012 2013 2016 2019 2022 % Change, 2012-2022
All students 20,968 21,216 22,076 23,025 23,888 13.9%
Men 8,998 9,070 9,216 9,493 9,796 8.9%
Women 11,970 12,146 12,860 13,533 14,092 17.7%
Full time 13,104 13,107 13,532 14,068 14,616 11.5%
Part time 7,953 8,109 8,544 8,957 9,273 16.6%
Undergraduate 18,006 18,187 18,848 19,634 20,399 13.3%
Graduate 2,962 3,029 3,228 3,392 3,489 17.8%
First-Time Freshmen 3,165 3,196 3,309 3,445 3,578 13.1%
Public 4-Year 8,045 8,131 8,443 8,790 9,120 13.4%
Public 2-Year 7,033 7,125 7,420 7,755 8,048 14.4%
Private 4-Year 5,455 5,521 5,757 6,003 6,223 14.1%

The report projects roughly similar patterns to occur in bachelor's degree production, with the awarding of such degrees expected to rise by 17 percent in the next decade compared to 45 percent in the last one. The awarding of associate degrees is projected to drop off less, with the report envisioning a 49 percent increase in the number of two-year credentials through 2022, compared to a 69 percent rise through 2011.

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