College enrollment could take a big hit in 2025. Here’s why. The nation’s declining birthrate could hurt enrollment numbers.

 College enrollment numbers, long in decline, maybe hitting a cliff next year.  

After peaking in 2010, undergraduate enrollment dropped from roughly 18.1 million students that year to about 15.4 million in 2021 amid changes in the country’s economy and immigration policies and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic  

And while enrollment increased slightly last year, higher education experts worry a significant demographic shift could send enrollment into a more dramatic decline beginning in 2025. 

So, what is causing this drop in college enrollment, and why is it expected to worsen next year?  

The number of young Americans is declining.   

One of the most important contributing factors to the country’s dwindling college enrollment is that the number of children born in the U.S. has been shrinking.  

The decline began roughly 17 years ago. Before then, the national birth rate had been increasing, and the number of births in the country climbed to an all-time high in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But then the Great Recession hit, causing fertility rates to plummet.   

The national birth rate fell by almost 23 percent between 2007 and 2022, dropping from 14.3 births per 1,000 people to 11.1, according to data from the CDC. At the beginning of that period, between 2007 and 2009, fertility rates fell more rapidly than any other two-year period in the country’s recent history.  

Fast forward to the present day, and the nation has a deficit of high school seniors preparing to go to college.    

This decline in births is why the traditional college-age population in the U.S. will start to shrink dramatically beginning in 2025 and lasting until 2037, according to data from the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.   

Meanwhile, Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College, forecasts that the population could drop by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline until 2040.  

“That means that as we go through the next decade, colleges are seeing a smaller market,” Grawe told The Hill, saying this could potentially impact enrollment.   

“Demographics is destiny, as some people like to say,” said Peter Eckel, a senior policy fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of education. 

The United States is also an aging nation. Because of this, the percentage of women in their childbearing years compared to the overall population is getting smaller as older Americans outnumber younger ones, according to William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.    

Decreased immigration is contributing to that decline in the country’s younger population as well.  

The foreign-born population in the United States shrank between 2018 and 2021 under the Trump administration, largely because of changes to immigration policy but also because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Congressional Budget Office.   

And a smaller immigrant community means a smaller 18 and under population, according to Frey.  

“Nationally, immigration is kind of the key to growth in the younger populous,” Frey told The Hill. This isn’t because immigrants are young themselves, he said, but because immigrants tend to be “in the younger adult ages so they have children when they come here.”  

Fewer international students are studying in the U.S.  

In addition to a decline in immigration, the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic also saw a drop in the number of foreign students choosing to come to the U.S.   

The number of international students fell from 1,075,000 in 2019-2020 to roughly 914,000 the following year, according to U.S. News and World Report.   

Last year saw a rebound in foreign students choosing to come to the U.S., and Angel Perez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, is cautiously optimistic that those numbers will continue to climb.  

He notes, however, that tensions between Washington and Beijing could be having a negative impact.   

China and India have been the two leading countries of origin for foreign students studying in the U.S. for years. And while there was a surge in Indian students coming to the country to study last year, Chinese students are coming to the U.S. in fewer numbers.  

“US-China relations are really difficult right now and fewer Chinese students are choosing to study in the United States,” said Perez.    

In 2022, about 290,000 Chinese students were studying in the U.S. — an 8.6 percent drop from the previous year, according to data from the Institute of International Education.    

Strong economies can inspire young people to enter the workforce early.    

The United States economy is doing better than expected post-pandemic, and 2023 ended on a particularly good note.    

The country’s real gross domestic product grew to 5.2 percent during the third quarter of last year, more than the initially predicted rate of 4.9 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.   

Consumer spending — a telltale sign of how well an economy is doing — also surged last year. And U.S. employers added 216,000 jobs in December alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.   

On top of that, unemployment has remained relatively low, falling to 3.7 percent late last year.    

This could impact how many students opt to pursue a higher education: When the economy is strong, there tends to be a drop in post-secondary enrollment, according to Grawe.   

“There are a lot of young people who reasonably believe that now might be a better time to take a job and they’ll perhaps go to college later,” said Grawe.    

Something else that could be compelling young people to forgo college and start working is “wage compression,” or new employees being paid at market rate while salaries for long-time workers fail to keep up with that rate, Grawe added.   

Wage compression can happen when federal or state minimum wages increase. 30 states and Washington, D.C., have increased their minimum wage since 2014, according to the Economic Policy Institute.    

The boost in pay for minimum wage jobs over the past 10 years has made working more appealing than going to school for some young people, according to Grawe.    

Young people are not sure if college is worth the cost.   

The cost of higher education has skyrocketed in the United States, with the price of tuition at a public college for an in-state resident now averaging more than $10,000 a year, according to U.S. News and World Report.    

Out-of-state residents are shelling out more than $23,000 a year on average for tuition at those same schools, while private college students are paying upwards of $42,000 a year on average.    

And many private colleges and universities are asking students to pay even higher amounts: more than $80,000 a year for tuition, fees, housing and meal plans.   

The University of Chicago, for example, lists its tuition as $63,801 for the 2023-24 academic year. But students who live on-campus will end up paying about $89,000 a year after paying for books, room and board, and mandatory feesaccording to the school.   

Similarly, Kenyon College lists its tuition for 2023-24 at $69,030 making it the most expensive private college in the country. But students at the Ohio school will pay closer to $84,000 a year in fees, room and board are added to their bills, Kenyon says.   

Perez told The Hill there is a growing skepticism among Americans about the value of higher education.  And that skepticism is showing up in the growing number of high school students who question if college is right for them, according to Perez.   

Data backs this up.    

A 2023 Gallup poll found that confidence in higher education fell to 36 percent among Americans.   

2023 survey from the Wall Street Journal and research organization NORC found that 56 percent of Americans don’t think earning a four-year degree is worth the cost.   

That skepticism is strongest among 18- to 34-year-olds the survey also found, with student debt being the biggest factor contributing to the lack of faith in the sector.    

“More and more young people are worried about going into debt and are worried about whether or not it’s worth the investment,” said Perez.    

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