Undergrad headcount rose during a bruising decade — but not everywhere

Education Dive

Dive Brief:

  • Enrollment climbed 14.7% at four-year public colleges among full-time, degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduates from 2006 to 2016, according to Chronicle of Higher Education data on nearly 500 institutions. The data showed growth at 68% of colleges, primarily in states with a rising number of high school graduates, including Arizona, Florida and Texas.
  • Despite the gains, several institutions saw severe declines. Among the hardest hit were colleges in Illinois, where political tension took a toll on public institutions. The state had five universities with undergraduate declines of more than 27%, including Chicago State University, where full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate enrollment fell 55.2% during the period — the biggest drop recorded among public colleges.
  • At nonprofit four-year private colleges, undergraduate headcount increased by 9.1% across nearly 900 institutions. But many, especially historically black and small religious colleges and universities, saw precipitous declines. Cardinal Stritch University, a Catholic institution in Wisconsin, saw the biggest drop at 59.7%, followed by Hebrew Theological College (56.8%) and Oakland City University in Indiana (55.6%).

Dive Insight:

The Chronicle’s data puts names and context to a major shift in the higher education sector, as the recession, state austerity policies and other factors have hurt enrollment at numerous institutions.

A year ago, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found overall postsecondary enrollment at two- and four-year colleges had dropped for the sixth straight year. That included a 7.1% year-over-year drop at four-year for-profits and a 0.8% drop at two- and four-year public colleges. The declines came amid a 10-year period during which states pulled back funding to public two- and four-year colleges by an inflation-adjusted $9 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Higher ed leaders told The Chronicle that the recession, cuts in state funding, falling high school graduation rates and growing competition for nontraditional students were some of the reasons for declines at their institutions. Some officials told The Chronicle that the declines weren’t so bad when looking solely at full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate enrollment.

But enrollment declines have caused deep financial pain for some schools that are dependent on the tuition and that don’t have a large endowment, strong state support or other backstops to weather dips in tuition revenue. That can create a cycle of decline, as enrollment drops hurt a college’s finances, which in turn, in the worst of cases, can contribute to financial insolvency that leads to a loss of accreditation.

That’s what happened to Bennett College, one of two historically black private women’s colleges in the U.S. According to a report Thursday from The Associated Press, Bennett, lost accreditation after two years of being on probation due to its failure to comply with standards for financial resources. The loss followed years of declining enrollment and stressed finances.