America’s New Enrollment Problem

By Sam Tarr

April 30th 2017: The Massasoit Tribune

If you feel like there’s plenty of extra parking in the Massasoit lots, or there’s a few more empty seats in your classrooms this semester, you’re right. It’s not your imagination. The latest numbers show that Massasoit joins most 2 and 4-year colleges across the country experiencing steadily declining enrollment rates.

In 2011, fall enrollment was peaking. The latest study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows, that since 2011, there has been a drop of 1.59 million enrollments as of last December. It also shows that 2016 saw a 1.4% decrease in enrollment nationally from the previous year, a slide consistent over the past few years.

Community Colleges in the Commonwealth are just as susceptible to these statistics, as community college enrollment has dropped by more than 13,000 students since 2012.

Massasoit was one of the many state community colleges to see a spike in enrollment from 2006-2013. Massasoit Community College, no different than others in the Commonwealth, sees those numbers being replaced by a slow and steady decline ever since.

The latest numbers from Massasoit’s Office of Institutional Research, show a 3.3% decline in full-time fall enrollment. Over the past two years, full-time enrollment has fallen by 8.4%. Only the Middleborough campus has seen a modest increase. However, the losses of the Brockton and Canton campuses keeps the slide at -5.5% across all the Massasoit campuses, over the past two years.

Mary Goodhue Lynch, Associate Dean of Institutional Research at Massasoit, says there are several reasons for the decline. First, she says that the increases they saw from 2006-2013 were a result of the national economic recession. During that time, many people “returned to school to improve skills or train for new careers.” Also, she says, the potential incoming student pool is shrinking.

“In southeastern MA,” she said, “we are experiencing a decline in the traditional college-aged population.” The amount of high school graduates coming to high school directly after graduation is shrinking. A trend, she says, “that will continue over the next decade.”

This shift in the traditional population of full-time enrollees, is causing headaches for some local institutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students over the age of 25 is set to increase by an estimated 23% by 2019. UMass Boston has been particularly effected by current trends.

UMass Boston chancellor, Keith Motley, will be stepping down at the end of the academic year as the school faces a massive budget shortfall. The institution began a campaign of expansion during the enrollment spikes of 2011. The moves, including the building of new dormitories and several modernized buildings, are revealing themselves as being a bit riskier than initially thought.

With a variety of credible online options, decreased enrollments, and the spike in non-traditional students, it would appear that UMass Boston has made a miscalculation in its planning. 

Jeffrey Selingo, in his article in The Atlantic, cites these and other changing demographics when discussing the impact being felt throughout the world of higher education.

“Students of color” Selingo writes, “are far more likely than their white peers to be low-income or the first in their families to go to college.” This leads to increase in financial aid spending, potentially cutting into other college spending. Statistics show the % minority is rising at institutions like Massasoit, even as overall enrollments fall.

The dangers here are apparent as Selingo writes. He fears than colleges are going to be presented with an inherent conflict between missions of diversity and fiscal responsibility.

“Colleges will increasingly use their marketing prowess,” Selingo writes in The Atlantic, “to go after high-achieving students whose families have the ability to pay at least some of the tuition bill, leaving low-income students with fewer options.”

President James Mabry, Middlesex Community College President, is dealing with the lack of students differently.

In the Lowell and New Bedford campuses, Middlesex Community College is cutting staff and expenses to deal with the continuing fall in enrollments. This means that several vacancies at the college will remain unfilled. Also, the President plans on cutting travel and energy expenses. Mabry is certainly not the only college President looking for ways to deal with the current and future situation.
Naturally, recruiting more students is at the forefront of many strategies.

In a recent Inside Higher Ed survey of college presidents, 81% said that adding new programs was one of the ways they were looking to pump up the sagging enrollment numbers. Also mentioned was better transfer programs, increased marketing spending, and enhanced online programs.

Only 38% said they were considering lowering or freezing tuition costs.

Tompkins Cortland Community College and SUNY Broome Community College of New York have been either “level” or seen an increase in enrollment. The institutions have said that their cooperation with local high schools in offering programs where students can earn college credits, and expanding their own course offerings have helped stabilize their numbers.

As different states and colleges tinker with ways to combat and dampen the impending bad news, there is another new factor skimming the pool of prospective students.

 The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, conducted a recent survey in which they found that 40% of institutions were seeing a decline in international student applications. The current positions of the Trump administration are attributed to sharp decline. The hardest drop-off of applications is from the Middle East, an area amongst the biggest targets of the new president’s hardline immigration stance.

Some institutions like Northeastern and USC have seen a rise in international student applications, and several officials surveyed said any “Trump effect,” is just one of the possible reasons for the decline in applications. One of the many factors flinging colleges across the country into a frenzy.

Because the question is when will this steady decline of college enrollments hit bottom? Should you expand or contract? Should you start offering more courses or slash staff?

The bad news continues to pour in with each survey, poll, and study. Those numbers do not lie.

It is yet to be seen how college presidents and institutional brass across the commonwealth and country plan to deal with those hard truths, effectively.

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