September 29, 2014 at 11:41 AM EDT
“The drop-off in college attendance between 2012 and 2013 was across all income levels, although it was sharpest among the Census Bureau’s middle-income range — families making between $20,000 and $75,000.
“That fewer of those families are sending kids to college is bad news for colleges, Carnevale said, because it strikes at the heart of their business model, although it’s less of a threat to selective institutions, which already have long lines to entry and intentionally keep their enrollments small.”
In today’s economy, earning a college degree is still a winning choice. The unemployment rate
for Americans with bachelor’s degrees or higher is just 3.2 percent, compared to a national average of 6.1 percent
. So why, then, did college enrollment last year fall by nearly half a million?
Between 2012 and 2013, the Census Bureau reported
last week, 463,000 fewer people were enrolled in college. In fact, this is the second year enrollment has fallen by that much, bringing the two-year total to 930,000 fewer college students, bigger than any drop before the recession. The Census Bureau has been collecting this data through the Current Population Survey since 1966.
The decline was to be expected, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, repeating the old economics adage that the more things go up, the more they’ll eventually fall. And go up it certainly had. The recent decline comes on the heels of a record 3.2 million boom in college enrollment between 2006 and 2011.
So where is the current decline happening, and what can that tell us about why it’s happening? Not all colleges are the same, and not all students have equal access to higher education. Enrollment in two-year colleges decreased by 10 percent, while enrollment in four-year schools actually increased, albeit by only 1 percent.
Hispanic college enrollment had been increasing dramatically in the five years up to 2012, adding a million students, far more than blacks or Asians added to the collegiate ranks. But that growth ground to a halt between 2012 and 2013. Hispanics, the Census Bureau points out, are more likely than blacks, whites or Asians to attend two-year schools, reflecting the drop seen in this latest data.
College enrollment always follows the economic cycle, said Carnevale. When the economy is underperforming, the college campus is a “safe harbor.” As he put it, going to school beats living in the basement and dealing with your parents when you cannot find a job. But when the economy improves, and jobs are more available, fewer people flock to the ivory tower. That pattern tells a cyclical story about college enrollment.
There’s a structural story here, too, though. It’s hard to ignore, over the long-term, how much more widespread college-going has become. The 1960s and 1970s forever changed college enrollment in America, Carnevale said; the Vietnam War and the draft gave new meaning to the college campus as “safe harbor.” Many more jobs now require a college education, and despite the increasing supply of college grads, the college wage premium (the earnings advantage to having a college degree) remains extraordinarily high, according to Carnevale.