National Postsecondary Enrollment Trends Before, During and After the Great Recession

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National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


This report spotlights national and regional college enrollment trends among traditional-age, first-time students during the fall semester of each year from 2006 to 2010 – before, during and after the recession.

It categorizes the total enrollment and changes across years by institution sector and control; enrollment changes across the years nationally and by geographic region; full- and part-time enrollment by institution type and geographic region; and first-year persistence and retention rates based on individual student pathways across institutions.

Results of the study show that changes in college enrollment accompanying the recent recession, and among traditional-age college students have not been as pronounced as many had previously believed.

 At the same time, postsecondary institutions faced challenges including shifts in enrollment patterns, cuts in funding from state governments, and general uncertainties regarding financial aid practices.

Although there were consistent increases in community college enrollments from 2006 to 2009, they decreased slightly from 2009 to 2010 among traditional-age college students. The enrollment declines in 2010 seem to follow an enrollment surge at many community colleges in 2009. The findings show the need for continued state support for community colleges and also enhanced structural development within the two-year public college sector.

During the recession, private-sector colleges appear to have maintained their market share of student enrollments more effectively than predicted. This could be for various reasons, including better targeted recruitment efforts; state budget cuts and financial strains faced by the public four-year colleges; and the likelihood that families able financially to send their children to expensive private schools were not as affected by the downturn.

The recession appears, however, to have caused a noticeable shift in students’ choices regarding whether to enroll full- or part-time. Nationally, four-year institutions saw very little change in the proportion of students enrolling full-time. However, the proportion of students enrolling full-time at public community colleges increased slightly during the recession. Although these particular findings are not dramatic, they do suggest that students who might have otherwise attended four-year institutions instead enrolled full-time at community colleges.

The midwestern United States saw less dramatic changes in enrollment compared with other regions, while enrollments in the South increased steadily until 2009; but like the national trend, they, too, declined in 2010.

Further results from the study showed relatively few shifts in retention and persistence coinciding with the recession. Through adapted enrollment management, new financial aid strategies and recruitment, institutions seem to have weathered the recession and the effects of the recession better than many had anticipated.

For the free 73-page report, click here.