Enrollment and the Great Recession

Released earlier this month, “National Postsecondary Enrollment Trends: Before, During, and After the Great Recession,” a Signature Report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, follows fall enrollment from 2006 to 2010 to track any affect the Great Recession might have had on traditional-age, first-time college and university students. Doug Shapiro, senior research director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, says data was extracted from the National Student Clearinghouse enrollment data, which covers 93 percent of all postsecondary enrollments in the U.S. “We selected students in each of the fall terms who were enrolled in college for the first time and were under age 21, and we looked at where they were enrolled and whether they stay enrolled either at the same college or at any other college that following year,” he explains. The results were then broken down further into other categories, such as different institution types, whether students were full time or part time, different regions of the country, and public versus private institutions.

Shapiro explains that one of the unique aspects of this study is their ability “to focus on tracking individual students through the pipeline… We can follow students as they move from institution to institution and account for changes in enrollment status and location.”

Some of the results were surprising. “I think we were all a bit surprised that there was not a larger evident impact of the recession,” Shapiro states. “One of the reasons we focused on students under 21 was that there has been a lot of previous work, particularly by economists, about what happens to older students during recessions.” Overall numbers for enrollment during recessions, including this most recent one, show larger increases in enrollment at two-year schools. “We didn’t really know how much of that would spill over to traditional-age students,” Shapiro explains. They were surprised that the overall effects of the recession, including financial issues due to unemployment and housing values, did not keep more students out of college.

How were these students paying for school then? There was an increase in private loan use and Pell Grants, but schools also stepped up to help incoming students. “I think of a lot of colleges and universities made very concerted efforts to increase their financial aid to keep students in the pipeline,” says Shapiro.

“In addition to all those responses on the supply side, I still think that this study shows that the demand for college education among students coming out of high school and their families is a lot less elastic than people thought,” Shapiro adds. Even with diminishing finances and expanding tuition costs, students and their families see postsecondary education as a necessary step before entering the job market. Shapiro explains, “Many of the enrollment trends appear to still be more driven by the demographic patterns of just how many students were graduating from high school in each of those different regions than they were by the economic trends. That really gets back to the point about the inelasticity of demand.” College education is a non-negotiable factor — essential for those young people starting out.

One interesting distinction in the report is the difference in student persistence and institutional-level retention. While students may place a certain level of importance on getting a college education, they may not be doing it at the same university for all for years. “We saw a very significant difference between the two measures that students are staying in college at a much higher rate than they are staying in their starting institution,” Shapiro says. “So while an institution may find that say only 65 percent of its students come back for the second year of enrollment, it may well be that as many as 80 percent of those students are actually continuing an education, but they’ve just moved to a different institution.

“I think that says a lot for our country in terms of meeting our goals of expanding success in higher education, but also says a lot for institutions in terms of thinking about the transfer behaviors of their students and how that affects their institutional goals.”

Shapiro suggests that schools use the report to help see the bigger picture of current enrollment patterns. “I tend to think of the report more as a presenting the broader picture to help institutional leaders situate their own experience into the larger patterns and give them a little bit more insight about whether what they’re experiencing is unique to their students and their institution or part of a larger trend. Then they can draw more informed conclusions on their own about what they should do.” Doing so can help them improve their position as our economy comes out of the Great Recession.

To view and download the report, visit the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Signature Report page.

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