WORCESTER, Mass. — Only bird songs penetrate the silence on the neatly tended but deserted grounds of Becker College.
A sign on the registrar’s office gives a web address for students who need their transcripts; another, on the locked door of the bookstore, advertises half-off key chains, drinkware, apparel and anything else with the Becker logo.
“All must go,” it says.
The college, which traces its origins to 1784, held its last-ever commencement this spring after a steady erosion of enrollment. The number of full-time undergraduates fell by 21% in the last five years, to 1,250 this year. Even attracting that many required giving every incoming freshman a discount from the advertised tuition, federal data reveal.
Becker’s trustees blamed the coronavirus pandemic for accelerating this decline; some students who were accepted never showed up, took leaves of absence, dropped out, or decided not to live on campus.
But focusing only on the effects of the virus on enrollment obscures the fact that a demographic downturn has already been squeezing colleges and universities for a decade, during which the number of students has declined by an unprecedented 2.6 million, or 13%.
Because of a falloff in the number of births during the last recession, another drop — of 11% to 15% — is projected, beginning in the mid-2020s, in the number of 18-year-old prospective college students graduating from high schools.
Now, grim new birthrate data reflecting conceptions that mostly preceded the pandemic adds to the dire predictions — and worse may be ahead, according to early signs of an even sharper drop since then in people having children.
This means any hope of a rebound is fading.
“The bounce-back isn’t coming, or it’s certainly not going to be coming for a long time,” said Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
That’s more bad news for colleges, some of which will continue to struggle to stay afloat; mergers and downsizing of public universities already have been proposed in states, including Pennsylvania.
But there are indications that the depth of their predicament is also finally prompting colleges and universities to make structural changes that critics contend are long overdue, which could flatten or lower students’ costs, reduce dropout rates, better connect academic offerings to workplace demand, make it easier to transfer, and adapt to the needs of older adults and other untapped markets.
Undergraduate tuition and fees in the fall rose by the lowest percentage in three decades, according to The College Board, and many colleges and universities have announced tuition freezes or reductions for the next academic year.
“There’s definitely pricing pressure out there on colleges, both public and private,” said Kent Rinehart, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Marist College.
A few institutions are not only holding prices steady, but reducing them. Rider University is cutting its undergraduate tuition for new students by more than a fifth, to $35,000; Fairleigh Dickinson, by as much as a quarter, to $32,000, on its campuses in New Jersey. The University of Akron is lowering the cost of on-campus housing by
Universities doing this say they’re “creating greater access and opportunity,” as Fairleigh Dickinson put it, or moving to “strengthen educational value,” according to Rider. But they’re also bowing to a basic law of economics: Prices fall when demand declines.
Enrollment has been dropping every year since 2011, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, from more than 20 million then to just under 17.5 million this year.
Because people had fewer children during the last recession in 2008, the number of 18-year-olds graduating from high school is expected to fall again nationally after 2025 by 11% to 15%, according to estimates by Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE and Carleton College economist Nathan Grawe respectively.
Now new federal data show that the number of births continues to decline, down by 142,000, or 4%, last year to the lowest point since 1979.
That’s “a bigger decline than was expected,” said Patrick Lane, vice president of WICHE’s policy analysis and research unit. “It’s also preliminary, and what everybody is worried about is this year’s birth numbers.”
Those are likely to be worse. Economists Phillip Levine of Wellesley College and Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland project an even steeper drop of at least
300,000 fewer births in 2021, thanks to pandemic-related job losses and lockdowns that prevented potential couples from meeting.
Thirty-four percent of women said they have delayed childbearing or would have fewer children, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and almost half of adults surveyed by the Kinsey Institute said they were having less sex.
Among other things, this decline in baby-making means that even fewer students will be entering colleges and universities 18 years from now.
The sudden downturn follows almost uninterrupted growth in higher education — “a 150-year growth cycle,” said Rob Sentz, chief innovation officer at the labor market analytics firm EMSI and coauthor of a report about the looming demographic cliff — which only picked up steam when the baby boom moved through.
Now enrollment managers and observers expect the shock of plummeting numbers to trigger a renewed focus on affordability, retention, transfer, and finding new markets in retraining older adults.
“As scary as some of this might be, it’s also oddly a really exciting time for innovation in a higher education sector that hasn’t traditionally been very good at that,” Anselment of Lawrence University said.
In addition to slowing annual increases in cost, institutions are trying to convince prospective students and their families that their educations will lead to good jobs.
“Colleges are taking a much deeper look at program offerings and making sure that what we have is relevant to the marketplace,” Anselment said.
Lawrence, for example, is doubling down on health-related disciplines and environmental science. Becker, before it closed, built a program in game design so well regarded it’s been scooped up by the neighboring Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
That’s also an example of how institutions are vying for transfer students whose credits many previously resisted accepting.
“You’re seeing this incredible pressure to meet transfer goals,” said Rinehart. “Colleges that are missing their freshman goals are going to very often turn to transfers to try to make up the shortage.”
Administrators are trying to chip away at dropout rates, too, plugging the substantial leak of tuition-paying students they’re losing.
“You have to look at every single person you have as being twice as valuable as you did before,” Sentz said.
Universities and colleges are also eyeing the millions of people needing training and credentials to advance in their careers, or find new ones. Nearly 36 million Americans have some credits but never finished their degrees, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
That’s a huge market, but one that many colleges and universities have been slow to tap and for which they face established competition from big online providers.
Demographics and competition aren’t the only problems coming home to roost for many colleges and universities.
Once a bright spot, enrollment of new international students has been falling since 2015, according to the Institute of International Education.
Meanwhile, Americans have become increasingly skeptical of the return on their investment in tuition; 57% of currently enrolled college students say their educations aren’t worth the money, according to a survey by the center-left think tank Third Way.
There are a few signs in the new birthrate data that the smaller number of prospective students entering the pipeline are at least more able and apt to go to college, said Levine, the Wellesley economist who’s studied it.
That’s because the declines in births are particularly pronounced among teenage mothers and people with low incomes, whose children have historically been less likely to go to college, for example, while the number of births to women with degrees is up.
They — and women who delay child rearing for career reasons — are often ultimately better able to pay for their kids’ eventual tuition.
Only time — and whether people return to having children — will determine how this relentless downturn ultimately plays out, Anselment said.
“Who knows what the pandemic will bring?” he said. “We’ll find out in 18 years, I suppose.”
This story about college and university enrollment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.