The demographics of declining college enrollment

Education_College Student

Despite a rise in high school graduation rates, college enrollment is dropping from its 2011 peak, leaving many small colleges scrambling.  Here in Virginia, enrollment has largely been steady, but two small colleges closed in the last two years, and others have sounded the alarm on declining enrollment or missed targeted growth.  Every struggling college certainly has its own history and unique problems.  But larger trends always pick off stragglers.  In Warren Buffet’s words, “when the tide goes out, you find out who’s been swimming naked.”  And the tide appears to be going out.  A rash of articles has addressed the subject, with some of the leading culprits being the improved economy and job prospects for those without degrees.

But the big factor that doesn’t seem to be well-understood is simple population math.  College attendance has climbed over the years to the point where an overwhelming majority of American young people will enroll in college of some kind at some point.  This makes college enrollment extremely sensitive to fluctuations in the number of young people available.  The generation currently in college or recently out of it is one of the largest this country has managed to produce.  It’s no wonder there was a spike in enrollment, recession or no, back in 2008-09 if one looks at the number of Americans who were just reaching 18-19 years of age.  Since then those numbers have fallen sharply and will continue to fall more slowly for the foreseeable future as the U.S. birth rate hovers below replacement (on a positive note, most of that decline is attributable to a precipitous decline in teen pregnancy).

Here is the United States’ population by age from 2010-2013.

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What’s Driving the Rise in High School Graduation Rates?

Much of the news that circulates regarding the state of education is not positive, but one trend that remains underreported is the significant rise in public high school graduation rates during the past decade. By the end of this month, around 85,000 high school seniors are expected to have graduated from Virginia’s public schools.That is nearly 8,000 more than would have been expected to graduate just a few years ago.
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How to Succeed Financially: The American Template

In the U.S., the traditional narrative of how to succeed financially in has been to do the following:

  1. Go to college and earn a degree
  2. Use that degree to get a good job (with health insurance) that pays enough money to cover your basic needs and allows you to build some savings.
  3. With your savings, a mortgage loan, and maybe a little help from your parents, buy a home (presuming it makes sense vs. renting). This will save money on rent and home equity will be a major portion of your nest egg.
  4. Take advantage of institutionalized savings mechanisms (401K or other pension plans) to start saving for retirement to supplement Social Security. With diminishing payouts and concerns about the future solvency of Social Security, supplemental savings are increasingly important.
  5. After many years of work, retire and live comfortably off of your savings and Social Security.

While the notion of a strict linear model of the life course is increasingly outdated, there are also questions about the veracity of its basic assumptions–is a college degree worth the price tag? Is homeownership really a good investment? Yet, in the absence of clear alternatives, this remains the dominant life course narrative. Taking advantage of the online analysis tools at the University of California, Berkeley’s Survey Documentation and Analysis (SDA) program, I used the triennial Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF) and annual Current Population Survey (CPS) data to examine trends in work, benefits, and wealth among young working-age adults, those aged 25 to 44, over the past twenty years, with an eye to examining each step in this traditional narrative.

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More on Virginia’s Colleges

Speaking of infographics, I’ve been playing with the college completion data I highlighted previously. Below is a star chart (aka radar chart, spider chart) of data on Virginia’s 4-year public colleges.

Each spoke represents a different piece of data, and the length of the spoke conveys the magnitude of that data for each university. The colleges themselves are ordered by the number of students which you can see in the spoke pointing due East – that spoke is longest for Virginia Tech and shortest for Virginia Military Institute.

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College Completion in Virginia

In March, The Chronicle of Higher Education, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, produced a microsite of college completion: it seeks to show “Who graduates from college, who doesn’t, and why it matters.” With data on 3,800 degree-granting institutions in the U.S., you can easily waste a lunch break (or two) exploring the site.

There are myriad ways to parse this data. You can look at individual institutions, institutions by state, types of institutions, and demographics within institutions. I looked at graduation rates among Virginia’s 4-year colleges by type of institution: public (15 colleges), private (28 colleges), and for-profit (17 colleges).

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