College Enrollment Is Falling Faster Than We Thought (Good News!)

We should want more college graduates. But we should also want fewer students at colleges with high drop-out rates.

College enrollments ticked higher during the Great Recession and its ugly aftermath, but since 2012, what's gone up has come down. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, Spring 2013 enrollments fell 2.3 percent from last year. The drop-off has sped up since the Fall. 

Fewer people going to college? Could this possibly be good news?

Actually, yes. For three reasons.

First, it's probably a sign that the economy is getting healthier. Conventional wisdom says that as the economy tanked, students took refuge from the job market by heading to campus. Some critics say that storyline is bunk, and that the last few years of enrollment growth were really just the continuation of a long-term trend. But either way, fewer new students seems like a sure sign that, if they were before, Americans have stopped turning to education as a professional measure of last resort. Would these folks be better off with a degree? Probably. But there's a pretty decent chance that many students on the fence about signing up wouldn't have graduated anyway.  

Which brings us to point two: Even if you think more Americans need degrees, we should probably be focused on improving our nauseating dropout rates rather than adding more bodies to classrooms. 

And finally, we really, really do want some of these colleges to shrink. As shown in the graph below from Inside Higher Ed, The biggest fall-off by far has been in ever-unsavory for-profit sector, which has been pulling back lately in an effort to improve their abysmal track records and slim down on their cost structures. And the more overall enrollment shrinks, the harder for-profit schools will have to compete to provide better services and, hopefully, results. Meanwhile, the next biggest drop has been in community colleges, where in many states over-crowding has made it nearly impossible for some students to finish degrees, pushing them into the arms of ... the for-profits. 


Our views on college at The Atlantic are pretty simple. We want more college graduates to leverage an affordable education to get a great job. Falling enrollment sounds like an enemy of that goal ... but not when enrollment is falling the fastest at schools with the worst debt and drop-out rates.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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