Fewer Students Going to College but More Finishing Degrees

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Freshmen moving in to the University of Mount Olive with the help of their families.
Source: University of Mount Olive, “Freshmen Move In at University of Mount Olive” umo.edu (accessed Dec. 16, 2019)

College enrollment for the fall 2019 school year decreased by 1.3%, continuing an eight-year decline in enrollment of about 11% overall.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment decreased to 17.9 million students in fall 2019, a drop of 231,000 students from fall 2018. The decline marks the first time in a decade that enrollment has fallen below 18 million students.

Schools in every sector saw decreases in enrollment: public four-year schools’ enrollment decreased by 97,426 students (1.2%), private non-profit four-year schools dropped 22,027 students (0.6%), private for-profit four-year schools dropped 15,711 students (2.1%), and public two-year schools decreased by 77,092 students (1.4%).

Colleges in Florida (-52,328), New York (-19,386), and California (-19,272) lost the most by number of students. However, Alaska (-10.6%), Florida (-5.3%), and Arkansas (-4.9%) dropped the most new students by percentage.

Doug Shapiro, PhD, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, stated, “With every institutional sector experiencing enrollment declines this fall, the higher education industry has now shed more than 2 million students since its peak in 2011 and the unduplicated count has fallen below 18 million for the first time. Most of the pain hits the Midwest and Northeast, even as some states in the South and West saw modest growth.”

Reporting for NPR, Elissa Nadworny and Max Larkin offered three reasons for the continued decline: the strong economy means more people choosing to enter the workforce rather than go to college; lower birth rates 20 years ago means fewer students available to go to college now; and the increasing costs of college dissuades families from the investment.

While the enrollment numbers are troubling to schools looking for students, a higher percentage of students are completing their degrees. 59.7% of students who entered college for the first time in fall 2013 have completed their degrees in six years, and 61.8% of students who began college in fall 2011 for the first time have completed their degrees in eight years, the highest numbers since the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center began tracking completion rates with the fall 2006 freshmen.

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Discussion Questions – Things to Think About
1. Is a college education worth it? Why or why not?

2. Does everyone need a college degree? Who needs one? Who might not? Explain your answers.

3. Is the cost of college too high? Explain your answer.


Elissa Nadworny and Max Larkin, “Fewer Students Are Going to College. Here’s Why That Matters,” npr.org, Dec. 16, 2019

NSC Blog, “Fall Enrollments Decline for 8th Consecutive Year,” studentclearinghouse.org, Dec. 16, 2019

Todd Sedmak, “National Six-Year and Eight-Year College Completion Rates Reach New Highs, 59.7% and 61.8%, Respectively,” studentclearinghouse.org, Dec. 10, 2019