Why Do Fewer Students Attend College Now?

With few exceptions, college presents the best route to a job that pays well or at least decently. In fact, 41% of employers hire college grads for jobs formerly held by high school grads. In spite of this, there has been a decline in the number of people enrolling in college. So why do fewer students attend college?

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center receives spring term enrollments on an annual basis, and from Spring 2011 to Spring 2017, there were 2.4 million fewer college students. In fact, in just the past two years, the center noted there were half a million fewer enrollees. According to the data:

Sector Spring 2017 Spring 2015
Enrollment  Enrollment
Total Enrollment, All Sectors 18,071,004 18,592,605
Four-Year, Public 7,677,659 7,586,233
Four-Year, Private Nonprofit 3,703,320 3,685,554
Four-Year, For-Profit 993,169 1,217,358
Two-Year, Public 5,399,145 5,729,111


There are at least three factors influencing the answer to why fewer students attend college:

An improving economy

Some people weigh the pros and cons of attending college against their chances of getting a good job without a degree. “We are primarily a consumerist society and view most things as a commodity – including education,” explains Dr. Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University.

“Since we largely don’t view education as a tool for growth or enhancement – a perspective that is a luxury – from a dollars and cents perspective, it is quite likely that college is no longer a ‘formula’ for earnings, and this tends to be the primary metric by which people make this decision,” Durvasula says.

It’s a view shared by Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Attendance follows the economic cycle and the lower the unemployment rate, the fewer kids go to college.”

During the recession, Carnevale says that jobs were scarce. “If you wanted to get a degree, this was the perfect time to go to college, so people could slip out of the economy and when they returned, they were more educated, which made it easier to find employment.”

Carnevale explains that this type of cyclical behavior applies more to men than women. “Men are the least likely to go to college – and 20% of them can get jobs that will pay a decent wage.” He says that’s because there has always been a labor market for men who don’t have a degree, but not for women who didn’t attend college. “Men are the last people to enroll in college and the first people to leave.”

Carnevale warns that this is not always a smart decision, because down the line, those wages are not going to be enough. However, he says that the economy has recovered, and as a result, “No one is hiding out on college campuses.”

Declining birth rates

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, birth rates declined during the 1990s. (While the numbers increased in the early 2000s, they dipped again from 2007 through 2011). There may be several reasons for this decline, but one factor is the increase in women who are in the workforce. They’re more likely to delay marriage and childhood.

Fewer children means there are fewer students attending school. The Hechinger Report notes that there were 81,000 fewer high school graduates in 2017, and this trend is projected to continue. Currently, southern and western states account for almost three-fourths of all high school graduates. However, the West, Midwest, and Northeast are projected to experience steeper declines in the next few years. And this means fewer students attend college in part because there are fewer candidates.

Another reason fewer students attend college: affordability

The rising cost of college also contributes to the decline, although Durvasula admits that she has not noticed that fewer students attend college at her school.  “Since I work at a state university that offers affordable education to a large proportion of ethnic minority and first generation students, I am not seeing this yet.” She explains, “This trend is also likely quite fluid and impacting institutions differentially with elite top tier institutions not experiencing this and affordable state universities seeing less of this too.”

However, Durvasula isn’t surprised that affordability would be a problem. “Four to six years is a long time to stall income generation for many people and to simultaneously be incurring debt.” As a result, she believes that affordability is critical and higher education is not within reach for many Americans.

So how can students and their families pay for college?

Mike Sullivan, a personal finance consultant at Take Charge America, a national nonprofit credit counseling, debt management and student loan counseling agency, offers the following tips:

Another tip: If your debt becomes too burdensome, consider refinancing your student loans. A lower interest rate can save thousands.