Demographic Cliff in the Rearview Mirror?

An example of misleading or misunderstood data

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Yesterday I saw the following post on X that is worth exploring. I have not included the sender’s name - while the source is interesting, that is not the point for today.

There's an enrollment cliff coming in higher education due to demographics, right? But look at this @EdNCES chart. It projects steady or even growing enrollment. Enrollment decline is confined to 2yr colleges and is all in the rear view mirror.

At first glance, this chart does call into question much of the doom-and-gloom projections around future higher ed enrollment in the US, and it does show a very different trajectory for 4-year and 2-year institutions.

But there’s some important context missing here. The data come from the US Department of Education (ED) and its National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which we have covered extensively in this newsletter.

“Enrollment decline is confined to 2yr colleges”

One thing the chart doesn’t show is the cumulative effective of sector changes on the historical trend. A growing number of community colleges - predominantly offering 2-year degrees - have added bachelor degrees in the attempt to grow relevance and enrollment. One flaw in IPEDS is that it categorizes an institution by the highest degree offered. So these community colleges become 4-year institutions in the eyes of IPEDS, with the 2-year sector losing the entire enrollment and the 4-year sector gaining. This is artificial, as nearly all of these sector changes still have community colleges that predominantly offer 2-year degrees. AACC and NSC adjust accordingly (as do we in the newsletter), but IPEDS does not.

If you look at the cumulative effect in the time period mentioned in the X post, you see that more than 800 thousand enrollments have moved between 2012 - 2021, and that if you remove these artificial changes, the story is much different. Nearly all sector changes from 2-year to 4-year have occurred in the public sectors, but this chart combines public, private, and for-profit to match the X post.

2-year schools are still worse off than 4-years, as seen by the dashed lines, but note that 4-year schools have gone from gaining 250 thousand 2012-2021 to dropping by 550 thousand by taking into account the impact of sector changes.

Enrollment declines are not isolated to 2-year colleges.

“all in the rear view mirror”

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