Why you should care
Because the future of higher education is flexible.
Glossy brochures with photos of young adults traipsing around leafy quads might dominate the popular imagination of what higher education looks like. But steadily and dramatically, we’re seeing movement away from a life of lecture halls and dorms.
The number of higher ed students studying on campus dropped by more than 1 million between 2012 and 2016.
The decline from 18.3 million to 17.1 million (6.4 percent) is spelled out in a new study from the Babson Survey Research Group on online and distance learning. The study found a decline in higher ed enrollment overall, coupled with growth in students enrolled only in distance courses — now at 3 million, or about 15 percent of the overall higher ed population. The drop on campus has been slow and steady in recent years, but it’s become impossible to dismiss as a blip. “It’s something that is death by a thousand cuts as opposed to a stab in the heart,” says Jeff Seaman, co-director of Babson Survey Research Group, an education-focused firm affiliated with Babson College.
The decline has been uneven. For-profit colleges saw a whopping 44.1 percent drop in on-campus learners, as the industry suffered from bad press and fresh government crackdowns. Public and private nonprofit schools saw smaller, but still real, declines in campus students.
There is a mix of factors at play. Demographic trends mean there are fewer 18-year-olds entering the classic college years. “But that’s been the minority student in higher ed for some time,” Seaman points out.
To get at the more complex reasons for the enrollment plunge, take a deeper dive into the data. Two-year public colleges were hit the hardest in total, losing 1 million campus students (16.3 percent) from 2012 to 2016, according to figures Seaman shared with OZY. Four-year public colleges actually saw 5.2 percent campus growth in that span, while private nonprofit four-year schools saw a 4.1 percent decline. Because the lowest-cost options took the biggest loss, it does not appear that the bubble finally popped on soaring college costs. Instead, the numbers are evidence of education’s countercyclical nature: The humming economy and low unemployment rate curtail the need to go back to school.
The enrollment squeeze is mostly hitting smaller institutions, rather than bigger brand-name schools. While the impact has been limited so far, Seaman says he expects more program downsizing and institution mergers in the future. Meanwhile, online learning is on the rise because of its lower cost, improving reputation and convenience for students with jobs and families.
For schools on the brink, Mike Goldstein, senior counsel at education industry law firm Cooley, says a pivot to cyber is not a cure-all. “Online is expensive to do right, and it’s a very crowded market,” Goldstein says. “Unless you’ve got a reason why students are going to enroll in your online service, you’re not necessarily going to solve anything.”
Goldstein says the enrollment declines are small enough that he’s not expecting shuttered dorms and paved-over quads anytime soon. The more intriguing trend in the report, to him, is where the online growth is happening: Even though technology enables students to take classes from schools located anywhere, 56.1 percent of distance-only students are enrolled at schools in their home states — a figure that has been on the rise. That shows not only how hard it is to build a reputable national online brand, as a handful of big players such as Southern New Hampshire University and Grand Canyon University have done, but also how local institutions can serve the students they have always served.
They just might have to update those brochures.