A Discouraging Data Point for Higher Education
For the first time in 15 years, higher education enrollment in the United States fell. It is a widely shared concern that the U.S. is losing ground against developed nations in terms of college attainment rates. While enjoying a relatively high proportion of college-educated adults, this most recent data highlights that the U.S. doesn’t hold the same advantage in the developed world that we used to.
After a decade and a half of growth, enrollment levels in U.S. higher education dropped, virtually across the board. Essentially what we are seeing is that despite billions more in spending on financial aid, loan repayment programs, and tax incentives for students and their parents, fewer students enrolled in postsecondary education in 2011 than did in 2010.
One of the more depressing points is the decline among public two-year institutions; touted as a ray of hope for students looking for additional training to meet workforce needs, these institutions saw a decline of more than 150,000 students last year. When many of the fastest growing occupations in the United States require two-year degrees, a decline among two-year degree enrollments suggests an even wider skills gap between the unemployed and available jobs.
Contributing to the slowdown was a sharp decline in students attending for-profit institutions. This may be viewed as a positive development by some, but the low-income and minority populations served by these schools are among the most critical to educate in order to secure our country’s future. And the data show these students aren’t heading to other institutions, most of them are simply choosing not to attend at all. That’s a losing proposition for the overall economy.
On a more positive note minority enrollment has grown, but here again the data doesn’t paint as bright a picture as one would hope. While several demographic subgroups showed increased enrollments, the “Race Unknown” subgroup fell by 17.6 percent, suggesting the growth in enrollment for many subgroups may have less to do with actual enrollment growth and more to do with statistical clarity around racial information. Not much of a reason to celebrate.
While enrollment is down, federal spending on financial aid from 2010-2011 was up by more than $10 billion over the same period. Rather than contributing to access and continued enrollment growth, federal financial aid programs appear to be spinning their wheels – and spitting up massive chunks of deficit spending in the process.
While the goal of improving our nation’s college going rate by 2020 was always an ambitious and important one, the data suggest it’s going to be even harder to get there than we thought. Worse, it’s costing us more than ever to watch that goal slip further away.