Number of enrolled university students falls for first time since 1996

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For the first time since the Unabomber was arrested at his mountain cabin, the Nintendo 64 was released and the Macarena swept the nation, fewer Americans are pursuing bachelor’s degrees.

In the fall of 2011, according to a report by Inside Higher Ed, total enrollment at American colleges and universities eligible for federal financial slumped slightly. The statistics come from preliminary data released this week by the Department of Education.

The data shows 21,554,004 students enrolled in the fall of 2011. In fall 2010, the number fell to 21,588,124. The difference, just over 34,000 students, represents a dip of only two-tenths of one percent, but it is the first drop in college enrollment since at least 1996.

What accounts for the drop? Insider Higher Ed posits a couple of possible explanations. Both involve basic economics.

The first theory is that enrollment is leveling off after a boom at the end of the last decade that occurred when young people and people who lost their jobs fled to the perceived safe haven of college campuses.

The second theory is that colleges are pricing themselves out of their own market. Perpetual increases in college tuition have finally reached a saturation point while, at the same time, states are cutting back on education support, donations are drying up and endowments are failing to grow.

For-profit colleges took the biggest hit. They saw an overall decline in enrollment of 2.92 percent. Enrollment at two-year for-profit colleges dropped a fairly whopping 7 percent.

As Inside Higher Ed mentions, a serious crackdown on some allegedly shady practices by for-profits could explain much of the drop in enrollment at those schools.

Enrollment at two-year public schools is down 2.23 percent.

Inside Higher Ed notes that community colleges in California have restricted enrollments due to budget cuts in the last few years. Given California’s size and its large number of community of colleges, these restrictions could explain the national decline almost entirely.

Some types of institutions of higher education did see gains. Enrollment at four-year nonprofit private schools jumped 1.67 percent from 2010 to 2011, for example. Enrollment at four-year public schools increased 1.51 percent.

The ethnic breakdown of the numbers shows that American Indians experienced the biggest enrollment decrease, 4.52 percent. Enrollment of white students was down as well, by 1.47 percent.

The biggest ethnic increase, 6.42 percent, was among Latinos. Also, enrollment among nonresident aliens rose 4.61 percent. At least some of the latter increase is probably due to colleges aggressively seeking out rich foreign students who can afford to pay full tuition.

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