Recession Drives Record High in College Enrollment

A study just released by the Pew Research Center reports record numbers in college enrollment in 2008. There were many contributing factors, but the data indicates that the economic recession may be at the heart of the enrollment spike.

College Enrollment Reached an All-Time High in 2008

In October 2008, almost 11.5 million 18-24 year olds were enrolled in 2- or 4-year colleges. That's 39.6% of the young adults who were the focus of the Pew Research Center study, and represents a record high in both absolute numbers and population share. Part of the increase comes from a jump in the number of high school graduates, which also reached a record high last year. As of October 2008, 84.9% of 18-24 year olds had completed high school, up from 83.9% in October 2007. The number of high school drop outs also went down nearly a full percentage point, from 10.2% in 2007 to 9.4% in 2008.

Pew Research Center 2008 College Enrollment Statistics

Community Colleges Are Driving the Surge

The primary cause of the enrollment surge may be the economic downturn. The Pew study reports that this recent spike is entirely due to increases in community college enrollment. The percentage of 18-24 year olds enrolled in 2-year colleges went up from 10.9% in October 2007 to 11.8% in October 2008 (that's 3.1 to 3.4 million), whereas enrollment in 4-year colleges stayed essentially flat. This is consistent with historical patterns, which indicate that community college enrollment tends to be countercyclical. As the economy worsens, more students enroll in 2-year colleges. These schools typically cost significantly less in both tuition and fees than both private and public universities, and they're more accessible for students who can't afford to travel far from home.

The other major economic factor in enrollment numbers is the struggling labor market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that only 46.1% of 16-24 year olds were employed in September 2009. That's the highest unemployment rate for young adults since the BLS started collecting data in 1948.

Low employment rates and high community college enrollment isn't a coincidence. Many young adults who would have entered the job market have turned to school when they can't find work, and the relatively high cost of 4-year education has sent most of them to community colleges.

So what's in store for next year? The hard data isn't in yet, but the Pew Research Center has indicated that early estimates from the Census Bureau's September 2009 Current Population Survey suggest that college enrollment will reach another record high.

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