Underreported Data on Enrollment Gains and Friday Follow-up

Deeper look into where the enrollment gains came from plus college ROI and FVT/GE follow up

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This post combines free analysis on enrollment gains along with premium (behind paywall) updates on the ‘is college worth it’ debate and potential GE/FVT plans.

A Deeper Look at Enrollment Gains for Spring

The big headline this week was based on the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) release of Spring 2024 enrollment estimates, with positive news as described at Inside Higher Ed (IHE).

Undergraduate enrollment increased by 2.5 percent this spring, according to a report out today from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. It’s the second spring in a row that enrollments have increased and it builds on last fall’s 1.2 percent bump, continuing a slow but steady path to recovery from a devastating nosedive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most notably, spring enrollment in bachelor’s programs is up for the first time in four years at both public and private nonprofit institutions—and the 2.3 percent average growth rate is higher than the fall’s, a rarity. First-year enrollment is up by 3.9 percent overall, though it fell by 1.5 percent at private nonprofit four-year institutions. Graduate enrollment was up by 3 percent this spring, reversing last year’s losses.

Community colleges led the way, as they did in the fall. Despite accounting for only a quarter of all postsecondary enrollment, they were responsible for nearly half of the growth, with a 4.7 percent increase over last spring.

Encouraging news, definitely. IHE did cover some caveats, in that dual enrollment accounted for 28% of the enrollment gains, and that sub-bachelor’s degree programs (associate’s and certificates) also led the gains. That is not bad news, per se, but important context.

Online Education

One item that was underreported in news coverage was that online education growth continues to outperform more traditional options. NSC measures Primarily Online Institutions (90% or more enrollment in fully-online programs) combined with multi-state institutions, and these are separate geographically. The net effect is that this POI/Multi-state category gained more enrollment than all other geographies.

Total enrollment by region highlighting highest growth for primarily online institutions

Narrowing in on the historical sweet spot of online education, graduate degrees, the growth and disparity is even greater. 8.0% growth for POI/Multi-state after two years of declines.

Gr enrollment by region highlighting highest growth for primarily online institutionssaduage

And where is that growth coming from? Private nonprofit institutions (SNHU, WGU, Liberty, etc), at least based on NSC metrics.

Vocational and Part-time Context

The NSC dashboard describes how the growth in community colleges was centered on vocational programs.

Building on gains from last fall, enrollment surged at community colleges with a high vocational program focus, growing 17.6 percent (+117,000; see Figure 4.2) and surpassing pre-pandemic enrollment by 6.1 percent (+45,000 compared to spring 2020). Enrollment at transfer-focused community colleges grew much more slowly (+3.6% for high transfer-focused institutions and +1.2% for mixed transfer-focused institutions).

I think there is one other aspect that fits into this situation - the higher growth for full-time students (left side) than for part-time.

5.6% growth in full-time public 2-year (community college) undergraduate enrollment for the spring compared to 4.3% for part-time, and 1.9% growth for full-time public 4-year growth compared to -1.5% decline for part-time.

Putting these two together along with the highest growth in sub-bachelor’s degrees for undergraduate, this seems to paint a picture of increasing numbers of students making a commitment to job-oriented, shorter-form programs. Students want jobs, they want quick value, and they’re increasingly willing to go all-in (full-time).

Updates on ‘Is College Worth It?’

Two weeks ago I described a flaw in the constant ‘is college worth it’ debate.

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