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Private 4-year Sector Enrollments Removing WGU, SNHU, and Liberty University as Outliers

In yesterday’s post I shared a enrollment estimate for US Higher Education by combining IPEDS and National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) data, and one interesting discussion started on LinkedIn about the surprising health of the private not-for-profit 4-year sector. Institutions in this sector are commonly assumed to be the most at risk for closure due to enrollment demands, and this view predated the pandemic. One study by Edmit early in the pandemic found that one third of these institutions were “at high risk financially”, meaning that “if present financial trends continue they would be able to survive six years, at most.”

So why do the IPEDS data (augmented by NSC) show total enrollments for the sector growing slowly at just over 4 million students from 2015 to 2020, with a modest decline in 2021? My answer was that large institutions such as Western Governors University (WGU), Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), and Liberty University explain the lack of a sector drop. Put another way, these primarily online schools are masking the overall health of the other private not-for-profit schools due to their high growth rates.

To get a look at this impact, I created a chart for Fall 2012 through Fall 2020 (I don’t have institution level data for Fall 2021) to show the impact of these three schools on the change in enrollment over time. This chart shows the percentage change in enrollment compared to Fall 2012 for the full sector and for the sector with WGU, SNHU, and Liberty removed.

Effect on Private Not-for-profit sector enrollment from WGU, SNHU, and Liberty University; percentage change since 2012

The narrative changes quite a bit if you remove those three institutions as outliers. Rather than total sector enrollments increasing by 5.1% from Fall 2012 – 2020, there would be a decrease of 1.1%. From a trend perspective, this sector removing the three outliers has been in increasing decline since its peak in Fall 2015.