I was chatting with a colleague when he ask why university enrollment was declining. My unresearched, off-the-cuff answer was, “The economy is doing well.”
After spending some quality time with my good friend Google, I can more confidently say I’m partly right. Here’s a list of likely reasons; we’re not being hit with just one, we’re getting hit with all of them.
- A dip in the age distribution. Dr. Pamela Perlich from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, University of Utah projects the college-age population will remain flat for the next several years despite a growing state population. As she explains, children of baby boomers are exiting their college years.  (However, the grandchildren of boomers are just starting to enter elementary school, which will contribute to a teacher shortage over the next decade.)
- A good economy. Traditionally when the the job market is hot there is a dip in college enrollment. When unemployment is high enrollment goes back up. The Seattle area (where I went to high school) is seeing a big hit in their community college enrollment for this reason.
- Immigration. In her report, Dr. Perlich points out that more than 4 in 10 non-citizen immigrants 25 years and older have less than a high school education.  Immigrants account for much of the population growth in Utah. She concludes, “These declining rates are at least partly explained by the increased immigration to the state of persons who have very low education levels and whose children are much less likely to finish high school as compared to the native born.”  We need to do a better job of getting immigrants to college. (I should also add that when children of immigrants do go to college, they are less likely than their peers to enter teaching, preferring higher paying professions. This also contributes to our looming teacher shortage, and makes the pool of educators less diverse.)
- International participation is down. It’s harder to get a student visa than it used to be, and Americans are decreasingly well liked in the international scene. According to one news report, “most U.S. universities reported a two and a half percent decline in foreign enrollment last year. Some schools saw drops as big as 23 percent.”
- Rising tuition. It’s economics at the most basic level. As tuition increases, fewer will be able to take advantage of higher education. As an article in today’s Deseret News reports, tuition hikes at nine public colleges and universities in Utah are covering costs traditionally paid for by state tax dollars. The average college graduate in Utah has nearly $15,000 in student loans; the number will go up, and interest rates are on the rise.
- “Long Term Demographic Trends Impacting Higher Education in Utah (pdf),” Pamela S. Perlich, Ph.D., Bureau of Economic and Business Research, University of Utah, May, 2006.
- Ibid., p. 6
- Ibid., p. 8
- Utah Foundation, “Trends in Educational Attainment: U.S. Catching Up to Utah,” June 2006. Much of this report is based on the work of Dr. Perlich (above).
- Salt Lake Tribune, “College enrollment to stay flat“
- Deseret News, “College declines troubling,” June 28, 2006
- Deseret News, “The student loan crisis,” June 22, 2006
- The U.S. Census Bureau released a report (pdf) in 2002 showing the impact of education on salary. Average earnings (in 1999) ranged from $18,900 for high school dropouts to $25,900 for high school graduates, $45,400 for college graduates, $81,40 for a doctorate, and $99,300 for workers with professional degrees (e.g. doctors, lawyers, dentists).