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The Changing Shape of American Higher Ed Enrollment

Much has been made recently of changes in enrollment in US Higher Ed: Fewer males (is it a crisis or not?).  Shrinking enrollments.  Changes in admissions due to test optional and COVID.

In this recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I recently pointed out that one of the ways colleges stayed viable during previous enrollment shifts was to expand both physical campus locations and offerings and degree programs tailored to working adults.  So that got me thinking about the shifts in enrollment by age, something I'd not explicitly looked at before.

On the surface it may not seem that exciting, but if you dig down enough and connect the dots, you might find some interesting societal trends.  So follow along.

Before we do, if you're using this data in your professional life, either as a college EM staff member or a for-profit consultant, I appreciate your support for my time, webhosting, and software costs.  You can show support by clicking here.

Some background: Part of what you'll see here is driven by other factors.  For instance, the market in the 1970's, 80's, and 90's for "adult" education was because there were large segments of that population that did not have a bachelor's or even an associate's degree.  It was untapped potential.  As you'll see below, that opportunity is less obvious than it used to be; higher education is a victim of its own success.  And at the same time, it's still opportunistic.

There are three views here: The first, Change in enrollment by age over time shows total undergraduate enrollment on gray bars, and age break outs on the colored lines.  You can use the highlight function to provide visual emphasis to any age group.  Some interesting stuff here: The big increase in the Under 18 category, driven by dual-enrollment, certainly.  The continuing increase in 18, 19, 20, and 21 year-olds, which may be making colleges complacent.  The troubling drop-off in 22-24 year olds.  And the relative drop of "adult" students (I have always hated that term to describe students over 25, because 18-year-old freshmen are adults, even if they don't act that way.)

On this view, you can filter by Carnegie type, Control, level, or state to drill down if you'd like a smaller view.

The second view, Distribution of Enrollment, is a little less complex.  It just shows the makeup by age of undergraduate enrollment in the US over time.  Here you can really see the "young-shift" of college enrollment.  Students under 22 now make up about 60% of college enrollment; in 1987 it was under 50%.  (This is where the IR staff will remind me that we're looking at headcount, not FTE, of course.  It's very likely that the overwhelming majority of those under 18 are taking fewer credits.)

And the final view, Ages and Breakouts, allows you to get a little more granular still.  Choose an age group, and then choose a way to break out the colored lines.  Once again, you'll see actual numbers on the gray bars, and percentage changes on the lines.

What do you see that surprised you?  Drop me an email or post your comments below.


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