From the 1990s, American post-secondary institutions enjoyed a boom in enrollment that remained fairly steady until 2012, but the recent significant decline has some colleges scrambling to boost their numbers. Beginning a decade earlier, high school graduates were increasingly looking to further their education by attending college. The population explosion of the 1990s, the largest in American history, coupled with the prosperous economy, resulted in a huge jump in the number of college-age Americans—not to mention the growing popularity of American universities among foreign students. The New York Times reports that college attendance rose dramatically between 1999 and 2011, from 15.2 to 20.4 million students. When the 2007 recession hit, many Americans decided to go to school instead of taking their chances on a hostile job market, and community colleges in particular saw a surge in applications from “older” Americans.

However, the college-age population ceased its inflation in 2009 and has continued to decline since. As the economy slowly recuperates, university applications are taking a backseat to job applications. A report published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) earlier this year estimates that general enrollment fell by 2.3 percent from the Spring 2012 term to Spring 2013.

Two-year community colleges and four-year for-profit institutions felt most of the decline in enrollment. From Spring 2012 to Spring 2013, two-year public schools saw a decline of 3.6 percent while four-year for-profit enrollment took a hit of 8.7 percent. Colleges that depend more heavily on tuition revenue are particularly feeling the crunch, especially due to the recent trend of rising tuition costs and student debt, which may be discouraging people from pursuing higher education. David A. Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), said of the trend, “There are many institutions that are on the margin, economically, and are very concerned about keeping their doors open if they can’t hit their enrollment numbers.”

According to the Times, the most dramatic examples of this trend creating problems for schools are found at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Loyola University New Orleans. Both colleges found acceptances to be approximately just two-thirds of what they had expected upon the May 1 deadline, resulting in emergency budget cuts of millions of dollars. While many schools often boost their enrollment at this point by accepting waiting list candidates, St. Mary’s and Loyola had to take a step further and make a serious effort to reach out to prospective students. Loyola gathered administrators and professors who generally are not involved in the admissions process to join officials in making calls to applicants who had not accepted offers, hoping they would reconsider. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, reopened admissions; both institutions collected some additional students, but enrollment has remained relatively low this fall. Virginia’s Randolph College, in a similar situation, even mailed out letters this summer to prospective students who had not applied there, if they had a strong academic background to recommend them.

The decline of the college-age population is projected to last through 2016. Will for-profit schools continue to feel the pain? Is the end of yearly tuition spikes in sight, or will they find some other way to entice Americans into going back to school?

Did You Know?

Even though the amount of students looking to start a college education directly after high school graduation seems to be dropping, those schools still reining in applicants are doing even more than that—they’re maintaining them. U.S. News reported that the average student retention rate reported in 2012 was 75 percent: “Those rates reflect the four-year average of incoming freshman between fall 2007 and fall 2010 who returned to campus the following fall.” Based on data covering first-year students that entered college between the fall semesters of 2007 and 2010, Columbia University and Yale University, had the highest freshman retention rates of 99 percent. The University of Chicago pulled into third place with a rate of 98.3 percent, while Amherst College, California Institute of Technology, Harvey Mudd College, Princeton University and Stanford University all boasted a 98 percent retention rate. The survey received responses from over 1,800 colleges and universities that self-reported information about their academic programs to ensure a detailed collection. The full list of reported retention rates can be viewed online.