College Enrollment is Down for Fifth Straight Year—Will The Decline Impact Non-Tenured Faculty?

by P.D. Lesko

According to the Hechinger Report, “college and university enrollment fell during the semester just coming to an end, marking a fifth straight year of decline.”

Some academic pundits and higher education reporters are reporting that the declines could impact the finances of higher education institutions. However, the overall long-term higher education enrollment gains made over the past twenty years mean the short-term declines, while troubling, are still modest. In addition, while the declines impact tuition revenue, exponential increases in tuition costs have far out-stripped loses associated with declining enrollments. Nonetheless, adjunct faculty would do well to pay attention to the types of institutions that have experienced the largest drops in enrollment over the past five years, as well as the academic disciplines which have seen declines in student enrollment.

“These forces show no sign of slowing and will continue to challenge institutions in their planning,” said Doug Shapiro, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center executive research director.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center figures reveal that the steepest enrollment decline is among students over 24. So-called multi-state institutions, including for profit colleges and universities, have seen the largest drops in enrollment. Nationally, between 2015 and 2016 alone, four-year for profit institutions have seen enrollments plummet from 1,134,974 students to 970,267 students.

This decline is impacting adjunct faculty. Jeff Harris taught online at the University of Phoenix for a decade. He contacted AdjunctNation on Facebook.

“I was provided the ’email of death’ that so many of us online faculty at the University of Phoenix have received. After close to 10-years teaching for their online business program, including a year stint as the Lead Faculty Area Chair for the program, my contract was terminated based upon the significant reduction in the number of students and course offerings.” 

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report shows among which academic disciplines declines in enrollment have been most pronounced at four-year institutions: Personal and Culinary Services (-17.8%), Engineering Technologies and Engineering-Related Fields (-14.9%), Legal Professions and Studies (-10.9%), Mechanic and Repair Technologies/Technicians (-8.4%)Communications Technologies/Technicians and Support Services (-8.2%), Family and Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences (-7.0%).

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report also reveals among which academic disciplines declines in enrollment have been most pronounced at two-year institutions: Transportation and Materials Moving (-14.8%), Legal Professions and Studies (-8.7%), Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services (-7.6%), Engineering Technologies and Engineering-Related Fields (-5.3%), Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities (-5.1%).

Adjunct faculty teaching courses in General Studies and Humanities at four-year institutions can take comfort that National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data that show a healthy 4.7% increase in the number of students enrolled in those courses. Likewise, mathematics and statistics (1.4%), engineering (4%), architecture (4.1%) and science technologies (15.9%) are disciplines at four-year institutions in which enrollment is up. Non-tenured faculty in other disciplines may see reductions in their course loads thanks to lower student enrollments: Engineering Technologies and Engineering-Related Fields (-14.9%), Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics (-6.1%), English Language and Literature/Letters (-3.9%), Education (-3.2%) and Psychology (-3.2%).

Community colleges in the U.S. enrolled over 6 million students in 2014, but two years later enrolled 5.7 million students. For two-year colleges, the five-year slide in enrollment has pushed enrollment numbers back to 1998 levels. According to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, in that academic year 5.6 million students enrolled in degree-granting two-year colleges. Conversely, in 1998 there were 552,777 students enrolled in for-profit colleges and universities. Thus even with the significant loss of students experienced over the past five years, for-profit colleges still have almost twice as many students enrolled as they did in 1998.

Over the past three years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, four-year public colleges and universities have enjoyed a slight increase in their enrollment numbers from 8.0 million to 8.1 million students enrolled. This is a significant increase in the 5.89 million students enrolled in public four-year colleges and universities in 1998. Four-year private colleges and universities while seeing a decrease in enrollment between 2014 and 2016 of about 100,000 students nonetheless enroll 800,000 more students than the 2.9 million students they enrolled in 1998.

Some believe that the past five-year trend of falling college enrollment threatens the national goal — already behind schedule — of increasing the proportion of the population with degrees. Those who ignore the overall growth in student enrollment over the past two decades suggest the trend may also signal further problems for not only for-profit colleges and universities, but private nonprofit ones for which tuition is the principal source of revenue.

Rather than expanding services for older students, many colleges and universities have been cutting back.

The news follows predictions that the number of high school graduates will decline for at least the next two decades, while the proportion of those grads who are lower-income and nonwhite will increase.

The biggest declines in enrollment were in the Northeast and Midwest, the National Student Clearinghouse report said.

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  • AdjunctNation Editorial Team: @Jeffr thanks for pointing out the distinction.
  • Jeffr: Note that adjunct faculty are considered to be on a “term” basis and receives no protection except...
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