Is a drop in college enrollment good for education?

Emma Pearse

July 30, 2013

College enrollment declined for the first time in decades, forcing some schools to compete for students. Could this be a positive change for US education?

For years, students have faced ever-increasing competition to get into colleges, but at some schools that might no longer be the case. In fact, more and more often, schools are now finding themselves competing for students.

The recent economic recession brought a boon for universities across the country as many Americans sought refuge from a sluggish job market in higher education, but lately that trend has reversed.

2012-2013 enrollment numbers dropped two percent, the first significant decrease since the 1990s, The New York Times reported on Friday. And those declining numbers are wreaking havoc at lower and middle-tier institutions.

While Ivy League and top-tier institutions are as popular and competitive as ever, thousands of colleges are fearing for their future.

“There are many institutions that are on the margin, economically, and are very concerned about keeping their doors open if they can’t hit their enrollment numbers,” David A. Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling told the Times.

“These colleges are going to need to do some serious work to get themselves noticed,” said Bev Taylor, founder of the private college consulting firm, Ivy Coach.

This is bad news for colleges, and for students: Budget cuts mean doors closing, fewer course options and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, though all this backlash could lead to a brighter future for secondary education in America.

“Eventually less competitive universities will be forced to close their doors or merge with other less competitive colleges in a survival of the fittest competition,” said Taylor. “The remaining universities are those that will be offering a better education, a better product.”

Just as degree programs at these middle-tier colleges have ballooned artificially, so have tuition prices—colleges have in effect cashed in on the economic downturn.

“The cost of college is really what’s driving all this,” says Dr. Bari Norman, co-founder and president of Expert Admissions. “People aren’t going to college just to go. They might be more thoughtful about their reasons for taking out the loans.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000–2001 and 2010–2011, college tuition prices at public institutions rose 42 percent and prices at private institutions rose 31 percent, after adjustment for inflation.

“I do see some colleges, and some states, focusing more on tracking college completion, making sure students get their money’s worth by making sure that they finish,” says Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U and Generation Debt. “I think this is an important area of focus going forward.”

“These colleges have to function financially. They need to say, ‘Hey, maybe bigger isn’t always better. Maybe we need to be smaller but be better at what we do,” Norman said.

As they grapple with budget cuts, many schools are also finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to woo accepted students.

SCHOOLS SEEK TO ATTRACT TOP STUDENTS

“One way of attracting high-achieving students is to offer merit scholarships,” says Bev Taylor.

“One way of attracting high achieving students is to offer larger merit scholarships,” says Bev Taylor. “By offering these merit scholarships, colleges can raise their mean scores and ranking in U.S. News and World Report and as a result become more attractive to top students.”

Norman says that at a time when those “high achievers” achieve more than ever, shrinking enrollments also opens up spots for some students who might have been on the margin in the past.

“Those people will certainly have some additional admissions options that weren’t available before,” she explained.

Some, as the recent decline suggests, may ultimately decide that college is not the “be all and end all.”

A de-emphasis on the college degree as the essential path to a meaningful living will also help what higher education observers see as an “ominous trend” in overselling the college experience.

“We’ve seen the most inflation in the past 5-10 years,” says Norman. “And that bubble is starting to pop.”

“It is not always the best thing for people to go to college,” she added. “You might have fewer people choosing to go.”