College Enrollment Declining in the U.S.
by Abby Bratton | published Feb. 19th, 2020
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center publishes a biannual report on postsecondary enrollment in the U.S. The study began in fall of 2012, and every report so far has shown a decrease in the number of enrollments nationwide. The latest addition to this series, published in December 2019, found that overall college enrollment hasgone down by 1.3 percent from fall 2018. This marks the first time in this decade that the national number of fall semester enrollments have dropped below 18 million students. Colleges and universities nationwide, including RIT, have felt the impact of these statistics.
Causes and Effects
According to RIT’s director of undergraduate admission, Marian Nicoletti, the primary driving force behind this trend is a simple one: national birth rates have gone down. With fewer young adults in the population, there are fewer potential college applicants.
Within that population of traditionally “college-aged” people, some don’t graduate high school; others go directly into the workforce. Nicoletti acknowledged that cost is also a factor in why people may not attend college.
“There’s a lot of colleges here in New York and in the northeast, and we’re all competing for the same students,” she explained. “Add in there the rising cost of college, and families are really having a tough time in making those decisions of where to attend.”
"We're all competing for the same students."
Ashley Simmons, director of RIT’s Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP), provided further insight as to why some people choose not to enroll.
“For some of the students, it’s accessibility. There’s a lot of scholarships ... but sometimes our students are not eligible for them. Another reason our students try pursuing a career track versus a postsecondary education track is the amount of time associated,” she said. “Some of our students are more interested in using their hands, so they pursue a trade. Then some of them just need a break from school.”
All causes aside, it is growing apparent that lower enrollment rates put some institutions at risk. The impact is most apparent in less-populated states like Vermont, where three colleges — Green Mountain College, Southern Vermont College and the College of St. Joseph — closed earlier this year.
“[RIT is] continuing to see a decrease in the number of students we are pulling from. However, we’ve been fortunate to have an increase in applications. So that’s the good news," Nicoletti said, "and that’s because of several things. Most importantly, RIT’s got a great reputation out in the marketplace.”
Nicoletti listed the cooperative education program as a strong factor in maintaining that reputation, along with RIT's facilities, faculty and financial health.
“Our campus, the safety of our campus, the community, all really help tell the story of the RIT brand. So we’re very fortunate to have that,” she added.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the potential student population is on the decline. RIT combats those numbers with a variety of recruitment techniques.
Stepping Into Local Communities
One way that RIT engages with local New York state students is through STEP. RIT’s STEP team engages seventh- through 12th-graders from six schools in the Rochester area, offering hands-on experiences for college and career readiness.
“[STEP’s] overall goal is to provide after-school and weekend enrichment to expose and keep students engaged and interested in pursuing education or a profession,” Simmons said. “We do a lot of tours of different campuses and we have started to incorporate company tours, because we know college is not for all our scholars.”
"We know college is not for all our scholars."
STEP is not a direct recruitment tool for RIT; its purpose is to prepare students for whatever college or career they might pursue. However, the program ensures that students are exposed to the RIT campus and all of the opportunities it provides.
“We let them know we’re affiliated with RIT, it’s a great institution ... and help them decide what’s the best college for them,” Simmons said.
Other colleges employ similar strategies to draw in local students. There are 59 STEP programs across New York state, though recruitment is not limited by state boundaries. It is important to take a broader view when considering issues of enrollment.
Beyond State Borders
Given the number of universities dotting the northeast, and the limited pool of applicants in that region, RIT places a lot of focus on recruiting students from across the country.
“Other states like California, Florida, Texas — they happen to be seeing an increase in the number of students who are graduating high school, just based on birthrates," Nicoletti said. "The state of California itself has more students than they’re able to accommodate at their universities."
That makes California an ideal place for attracting out-of-state applicants. According to Nicoletti, it’s a successful tactic. California is the fifth most common home state for RIT students, despite being on the opposite side of the country.
There is also one group of potential applicants that remains unaffected by lower U.S. birth rates: international students. However, international student enrollment in the U.S. has dropped significantly in recent years.
“Regardless of whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican — whatever your beliefs are — the United States is not seen as a very welcoming environment for international students,” Nicoletti explained. “It’s based on all kinds of news going out about families being deported, about building the wall ... Families just don’t feel that this is a good time to send their children to the United States.”
Nicoletti said this isn’t the first time the political climate has affected enrollment numbers for international students, citing the period after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as another example. But in the years following those attacks, international enrollment numbers began to rise again.
“So we’re hoping that over the next few years, that will slowly take a turn,” she added.
The Future of College Enrollment
The decline of national postsecondary enrollment poses no immediate risk to RIT; the university still attracts plenty of applicants. Other institutions may not fare as well over the next few years. While it is difficult to predict the future of college enrollment and recruitment in the U.S., the numbers suggest a clear pattern: if the U.S. birth rate continues to decline, the enrollment rate can be expected to follow.