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Why Is Undergraduate College Enrollment Declining?


Undergraduate college enrollment in the United States is down for the sixth straight year. This decline is happening across the board in higher education, and that is despite the popularity of a bachelor's degree. Elissa Nadworny of NPR's Ed team has more.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The slight increase in undergrads pursuing a bachelor's degree this spring, it wasn't enough to stave off the enrollment decline in alternatives to bachelors, like associate degrees or certificate programs. And that's according to new numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and there are two main reasons for this steady decline. One, the job market may be luring students away. The U.S. employment rate fell below 4 percent this month.

JASON DEWITT: Colleges are certainly concerned.

NADWORNY: That's Jason DeWitt, a research manager at the Clearinghouse.

DEWITT: When the economy's good, college enrollments tend to go down, at least for working adults.

NADWORNY: And enrollment of adult learners, students over the age of 24, it's fallen by more than 1.5 million since spring 2011. The other major factor, U.S. demographics are shifting. The number of high school graduates is expected to stay largely flat and then decline. DeWitt explains that's because of lower birthrates.

DEWITT: It's easy to forget that, you know, these things, too, kind of go in cycles.

NADWORNY: It's true. We've been here before. In the '70s and '80s, schools faced a similar enrollment crisis. And the folks who saved college back then? Women. Today, female students make up more than half of all enrollment.

DEWITT: So the question now is, who is the next group (laughter) to recruit onto college campuses? And it's likely that Hispanics and first-generation college students are going to make up a greater share of new college enrollment.

NADWORNY: That's based on the shifting demographics in public schools. And research shows that first-generation students and students of color often have their own unique needs when they step onto a college campus, a change colleges will have to acknowledge, DeWitt says. While they're at it, the other thing colleges can do to keep their numbers up? Improve retention and graduation rates for their current students.

DEWITT: And, you know, it's probably less costly in terms of resources. You know, keep the students that you already have.

NADWORNY: That's a fix that would seem to make colleges and their students equally pleased. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.