Changes in College Enrollment

In recent data released by the U.S. Census, it was found that college enrollment was at its lowest rate since the recession hit in 2007.

Taken from

The graph points out that college enrollment often rises during recessions. I found this to be very interesting. When a recession hits, and unemployment rises, and consumption falls. I would have thought that college enrollment would fall as well. But that isn’t the case. What we see occurring is in fact the opposite. During the first 2-3 years of our recession, we see college enrollment on a steady climb, and when our economy slowly started to recover, we see a fall in enrollment.

The question I asked myself was why would more people want to go to college when the economy is struggling than when it is in an upturn. The answer probably is attributed to multiple factors. The first thing that I thought of when seeing this trend was that college tuition may be responsive to swings in the economy, and when the recession hit, tuitions may have fallen in response the the fall in demand. But according to, average tuition of all varieties of college actually increased since 08-09 as you can see here.

This would direct me away from believing that changing tuition prices are the cause of increasing enrollment during a depression. In a blog by Ben Casselman on, he points out that the fall in college enrollment after the recession could be attributed to the strengthening job market. If more potential college attendees can find employment they may make the decision to work rather than enroll in school.  Casselman points out that the largest declines in enrollment were in part-time and community colleges.

This points out some interesting characteristics of the market for college education, telling us that it may not respond to changes in the economy in the way that we thought.

2 Replies to “Changes in College Enrollment”

  1. Nice article. The increase in college enrollment, particularly in community colleges, during the recession creates problems for these schools because states are likely to cut funding for their community and state colleges during a recession. It would be interesting to see if this extra strain on community colleges has any appreciable effect on the educational/career outcomes of those who choose to go back to school during a recession.

  2. This is a very interesting topic. I remember talking to the UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley a number of years ago about trends in college enrollment. He agreed with your analysis that when the economy is good, more people opt to forego additional education for advancing their employment and conversely when the economy is faltering and it’s difficult to get work many opt to continue their education in order to position themselves more favorably in the job market. It was interesting because he shared data that showed some differences between men and women. Men were significantly more likely than women to opt out of continuing education and take their chances in the workforce when the economy was strong. I wonder if you saw trend data related to gender?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *