College enrollment numbers tend to be cyclical. A poor economy forces many adult learners into the classroom to retrain or hone their skills, but when it improves, enrollments decrease as they return to the workforce.
That's the current state of affairs for community colleges and for-profit institutions across the country according to new data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The report reveals that 2015 totals are down 1.9 percent -- to fewer than 18.6 million students -- compared to spring 2014. Most of that decline is due to students who are 24 and older. That group declined by 3.6 percent, to about 7 million.
The majority of that decline occurred at two-year public colleges -- which were down 3.9 percent -- and at four-year for-profit institutions, which had a drop of 4.9 percent compared to last spring.
"Since the bulk of decline is among the older students, that seems to support the idea that this is more about the economic recovery," said Jason DeWitt, the research manager for the center. "We also know that for the past several years the number of high school graduates has been declining, so that's a factor as well. But the bigger factor is the economy."
Nationally the unemployment rate is down to 5.4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"The trend of declining enrollment for community colleges is not surprising," said Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, in an email. "Remembering that the majority of our students are working, it makes sense that robust job market would have an impact on enrollment."
But two-year colleges still enroll nearly 50 percent of American students, he said.
The picture for the for-profit sector is also more complicated than the economy driving enrollments. The negative publicity the for-profit sector has received lately due to federal and state investigations and campus closings may have played a part in people choosing not to enroll in one of those colleges.
"This sector has faced enormous headwinds in regulatory aspects and negative comments made… and that has an impact on how enrollments go forward," said Noah Black, vice president of communications for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. "Our hope is, as we continue to offer career-quality, focused programs and have results students are looking for, we'll see a turnaround."
Still, despite the decreases, growth remains high for the number of part-time students enrolled in four-year for-profits, which was 10.5 percent this spring compared to last year.
"A lot of programs are moving to more flexible scheduling for degree programs and that is being well received by students," Black said, adding that it may be a shift from full-time students to students working and attending classes part time.
There are pockets of growth that vary by state. The largest increase by far is in New Hampshire, which is seeing double-digit enrollment growth that may be attributed to dramatic increases at nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University.
"If you drill down to geographic regions, there will always be some unique factors in those areas," DeWitt said. "In New Hampshire's case they've had some explosive growth in online education, so that's an exceptional factor."
Meanwhile enrollment at four-year public institutions and four-year private colleges held steady at 7.5 million and 3.6 million, respectively.
The lack of change at the four-year public and private colleges, many of which serve traditional students, is indicative that more nontraditional students are affected by economic conditions, DeWitt said.