Climbing college enrollment does an about-face

After five years of growth, the numbers slipped in fall 2012, led by a 419,000 drop in older students.

By Aimee Picchi Sep 5, 2013 6:54AM

Student in classroom (© StockByte/PictureQuest)U.S. colleges are in danger of flunking out when it comes to one subject. Student enrollment plunged by 467,000 last fall, an about-face after five years of significant growth, according to a new study from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The decline was spurred by fewer older students, which the Census considers 25 or older. Enrollment among that group dipped by 419,000, while enrollment from younger students slipped by only 48,000. 

The reversal comes after colleges witnessed a five-year period of growth, jumping 3.2 million in graduate and undergraduate enrollment from 2006 to 2011. 

So, why is the over-25 group snubbing academia? While the Census data don't provide insight into the reasons older students are dropping from colleges' rolls, the trend could be due to an improving economy, with more potential students turning instead to employment as the effects of the recession continue to ease.

The unemployment rate stood at 7.4% in July, down from a high of 10% in October 2009. But for workers over 25, it's even lower, with the figure slipping to 6.4% in July. 

But then there's also the skyrocketing cost of a college education. Earning a degree now costs over 500% more than what it did in 1985, outpacing the rise in medical costs (286%) and inflation (121%) during the same years. 

Simply put, the improving economy is probably making the idea of taking on a mound of student debt unappealing to people over 25 years old. Adults opting against enrolling might just be avoiding the unsavory fate of reaching their golden years while still paying back student loans.

That's a problem haunting some baby boomers who opted to return to school to learn a new skill amid the recession. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, student loan debt for the over-60 set has skyrocketed since 2005, jumping more than fivefold to $43 billion at the end of 2012. 

Still, one group is bucking the lower enrollment trend, the Census found. 

Hispanics are opting for the college experience as enrollment grew by 447,000 from 2011 to 2012, the study found. 

Census statistician Julie Siebens said, "This increase in the number of Hispanics enrolled in college can be attributed to the combination of an increase in the adult Hispanic population and their climbing likelihood of being enrolled."

Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.

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Sep 5, 2013 2:59PM
Totally wrong reason.  The reason is  there are educated people who can't get jobs.  And, older people are being let go in the work force...not hired.  Look, I'm a RN and have been out of work for 2 years due to downsizing.  Plenty of ads but I get few calls.  The interviews I do go on do not land me a job.  There is something very wrong in this country and articles keep telling us how good it is.  Propaganda is what it is.
Sep 5, 2013 3:36PM

Perhaps if universities had stuck to prioritizing education over creating mini resorts i.e., (my son's university boasts of having "three new olympic size pools and state the art gyms'  not to mention a new this or a new that etc., etc., etc.. 


And, exactly how many undergrads benefit from the association of being yoked to the costs associated with being a "research university"? Graduates or PHDs yes, but not undergrads.


By now we all know that the costs of campus upgrades and bloated administrations are readily being passed to the student/parents who blindly subsidies and pay whatever incidentals and fees are presented each semester and it's disgraceful. Households can only absorb so much!


These days the concept of cost containment is an antiquated old fashioned notion thus saddling students/parents with life-long student debt. Ridicules! The role of the university president/chancellor has been reduced to that of a salesmen and full-time fundraiser and this ethos is toxic! Have they no confidence in their teaching staff to merely educate without having to overly promote campus lifestyle and partying?


Keep discussing America!



Sep 5, 2013 11:41AM
Does that mean colleges will have to cut costs. Start by firing socialist economic professors.
Sep 10, 2013 9:54AM

Colleges are like many other aspects in the United States today in that they have commercialized themselves into irrelevance.  With constantly increasing costs and slowly declining quality of product it is no wonder that people are taking a second look before simply jumping into a long term and very expensive commitment.  There are many places around the world where a much better education is available for considerably less money and many other places where that education can be put to use immediately upon completion.


If you look at what is happening today here in the U.S. it is really kind of frightening.  The cost of living is getting out of hand, medical care is out of reach of many, getting an education is way too costly unless you are a very good athlete, and once you get an education you discover there are no jobs available and if you find one you are shocked to find that your education has poorly prepared you for its requirements.  More often than not you have to scramble on your own to come up to speed in order to hold onto it.


Congress is very concerned and preoccupied with immigration when in reality they should be concerned about the impending exodus of young eager working people who will inevitably have to become ex-patriots just to find a place where they can get and apply their education and make a decent living as a result.  America has been virtually sacked from within thanks to corporate greed and political corruption.  Those two factors more than any other have sold the American middle class down the river and the perpetrators are now collectively picking over the remains like starving jackals over an old kill.


The ship of state in the U.S. is sinking and the crew is abandoning the passengers and taking all that they can carry in the process it seems.  As I approach my 70th birthday I have watched America go from being the land of opportunity to the land of hopelessness and despair for the majority of its citizens.  We talk about how we are recovering but I have a very bad feeling that what we are actually seeing is a sham based upon an unsubstantial  foundation that simply cannot last.  It is perhaps a last hurrah if you will.  Our only hope is to start investing again in the U.S. and its people or it will surely cease to be a major player on the world stage. 

Sep 5, 2013 2:56PM
Maybe most people finally realized that most potential employers these days prefer actual work experience vs. a piece of paper that says you're supposed to know something. All you're doing is putting yourself in a hole right out of the gate. I got into the job market right away while attending a small program at a tech school & I'm far ahead of my former high school peers who decided to waste 10 times the money at a 4 year college & are still stuck at the same kind of dead end jobs they worked while they were in college.  
Sep 5, 2013 11:28AM

"NEW YORK- Pimco's Bill Gross, manager of the world's largest bond fund, said on Thursday that the global economy has become difficult to stabilize and that investors should seek safety in shorter-dated bonds and inflation-protected Treasuries. In his September letter to investors, Gross said that central banks' easy money policies have become less effective in generating economic stability, and that zero-bound interest rates have threatened finance and investment in the real economy."


Unless those bonds are dedicated to rebuilding what garbage graduates ruined-- you are steering good people wrong, Bill. You know damn well that there was $50-60 Trillion in global currencies just 15 or so years ago. There are 3 currency types now-- cash, debt instruments and derivatives, totally more than $1.3 quadrillion today. Your bonds don't yield, TIPS funds are losing money but inflation is clearly out of control, shorts are hurting because fake money is funding fakeness, not recovery. It doesn't take a Bill Gross to read the headline list on MSN Money and laugh at the conflicts. Retail is going out of business- it hasn't sold goods for cash at MSRP in ages. 50% of homes are selling for cash to foreigners and REITs. Without fair wages, those rent increases will generate vacancies and midnight moves. We have been here before. YOUR cash isn't going to make it in ANY organized investment. You need to put it where you live. As for tuition- just about every normal person knows another person with a Minimum Wage job and student loans. Higher education is a scam. We need to be flushing crap grads and dumb alumni out of business platforms and see if they can perform in the enterprise arena. the 'talent' factor appears to have more to do with corruption than ability. That has to stop TODAY. Haul Obama back from the G-20 and let's get going on destroying FINANCIAL TYRANNY and deadbeat business platforms that cannot do enterprise. Wealth mongering is a disease. If you don't agree-- MOVE, see if some other place wants your ilk.

Sep 10, 2013 9:59AM
Unemployed veteran for 4.5 years!!! Multi-Master degrees from places like Harvard and I cant even get an internship at a company. College and the Army was a waste all it did was made me smart enough to realize that I should have just became a Garbage man!!!  
Sep 5, 2013 4:00PM
Much better off learning a trade than wasting make that FIVE years to get a four year degree, have no job when you get out, have towering student loans to pay off for the trouble.
Sep 10, 2013 1:29PM
Someone explain to me why in the world education costs should have gone up 500% when medical went up 286% and inflation is up 121% ???  I believe that it is totally due to the easy $$ of student loans. Loans got bigger but schools raised the rates even faster.   

I say eliminate student loans and watch tuition and costs come tumbling down!  These thieves won't close their doors, they'll just live with what they get. 
Sep 6, 2013 2:34PM
Perhaps a B.A. is the new high school diploma.
Sep 10, 2013 10:52AM
No surprise here. It's a common occurrence to find a young adult with a four year B.A. degree who's buried in student debt, working at Kohl's, or J.C. Penny at minimum  wage. What's the benefit of borrowing for a degreee when there are no opportunities for a return on your investment? 
Sep 10, 2013 10:53AM
A college degree is not necessary land you a decent pay job, but land you on a mountain of student loans...I was a sucker too...
Sep 5, 2013 2:43PM
Maybe it's because a lot of the free ride that we saw from the government in the early 2000's is dwindeling and young people are seeing that a college education is not the only way to make a living. Just a thought though.
Sep 10, 2013 1:25PM
How about the idea that maybe a college education isn't really worth what it costs?  College graduates are experiencing an extremely high unemployment rate - that wasn't the deal when students did all the right things and made it a priority to get a good college education.  Now they are made to sit on the sidelines because employers won't hire.
Sep 10, 2013 1:06PM

May I ask a question? 


The decline in enrollments couldn't have ANYTHING to do with the ridiculous tuition charges, and the fact that all people read and hear about today is the fact of 99% of these graduates are graduating with a debt that is up to their eyeballs, could it?


And let's face it, $15-$20 an hour [from what I'm seeing, that's what most jobs are offering to start] if you can get a job, doesn't even START to pay the bills nowadays. Especially after taxes.



Sep 5, 2013 11:35AM

"NEW YORK- The pace of growth in the U.S. services sector accelerated in August to its fastest pace in almost eight years, an industry report showed on Thursday. The Institute for Supply Management (, ) said its services index rose to 58.6, its highest since December 2005, from 56 in July. The reading handily topped economists' consensus expectations for 55 and beat the high end of forecasts."

******************** So paper and button pushing plus imported goods is improving.


"WASHINGTON- New orders for U.S. factory goods dropped in July by the most in four months, a worrisome sign for economic growth in the third quarter. The Commerce Department on Thursday said new orders for manufactured goods dropped 2.4 percent. Analysts polled by Reuters had expected an even sharper decline. The decline was spread broadly across the nation's factories, from those producing computers and machinery to cars and electrical equipment."

******************** But making things HERE so that the people who make them can buy them is NOT doing well. IF YOU ARE IN THE MARKETS AN THINK RATIONAL THINKIN ISN'T AS SMART AS TRASH AND KOOL AID BELIEVING, THEN YOU ARE TRULY DELUSIONAL. WE ARE ABOUT TO CRASH HORRIFICALLY AND YOU WILL BE A CATALYST. The victims will be eating you for dinner because YOU were Prime Fed while the rest of us got GMO'd.

Sep 10, 2013 12:59PM

Excellent news about the Hispanics in college.

When I was last attending at the age of 60, many of the brightest and nicest people in the class were Hispanic and I am proud to say were/are my friends.

I enjoyed my college years more after the age of 40 than I did before that age.

Sep 10, 2013 10:13AM
Uh, over 500% growth in costs, over 4 times that of inflation.  Maybe we should outsource education to help keep labor (professor) costs down.  All of the liberals wonder why the parts of society they control such as government, education, etc... fail miserably eventually.  Here is your answer-none of you care about anything but what is in it for you.  Unions and government workers only care about how they can "get over" on the free money that they government and the American payer can afford, until it hits a point where people and companies wake up and walk away.  The college costs have reached that point.  These are STATE schools that are losing the enrollment, not the private schools.  Where are the 99%'s and there outrage over this.  Obama had not problem cracking on big business and insurance, but their cost increases pail compared to his liberal, smoking jacket crowd of professors.  Come on Barack, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.  Grow a spine and crack your own.
Sep 10, 2013 12:14PM

" The bigger the lie, the more people will tend to believe it!"   Dr. Josef Goebbels said that and it seems to be true.

Sep 10, 2013 3:44PM
Perhaps employers are finally starting to realize that a degree doesn't ensure that the employee is going to be any good and lack of a degree doesn't necessarily mean that the employee is going to be bad.
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