Despite the flood of budget cuts that hit institutions of higher education, a recent study shows that college enrollment is higher than ever.
The main reason is an increase in community college enrollment, considering the current economic climate and job market.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center for Social and Demographic Trends, approximately 11.5 million students, or 39.6 percent of all young adults ages 18 to 24, were enrolled in either a two or four-year college in October 2008. Both of these figures are at their highest level ever.
The most recent annual spike has taken place entirely at two-year colleges. In 2008, the number of students enrolled in two-year colleges was 3.4 million – up from 3.1 million the previous year. By contrast, enrollment in four-year colleges remained essentially flat from 2007 to 2008.
Susie Williams, Los Rios Community College District spokesperson, said her district has seen a strong increase in enrollment.
“The number of students rose by 5,000,” Williams said, “and if we had a normal year without the impact of budget cuts on class availability, we probably would have had an increase closer to 8,000.”
The Pew study attributes this peak in enrollment partly to the recession, which has driven the national unemployment rate to its highest level in more than a quarter of a century. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a smaller share of 16 to 24-year-olds were employed in September – 46.1 percent – than at any time since the government began collecting such data in 1948.
“There are a lot of factors that have contributed to the increase [in enrollment],” said Williams. “Students who maybe would have gone to a CSU or UC are instead going to community college for two years and transferring because it’s cheaper. Also, there are more adults enrolling in community colleges to try and upgrade their skills to respond to the poor job market.”
In addition to the unemployment rate and poor economic conditions, high school students are also graduating at a higher rate than in previous years. According to census figures cited by the Pew study, a record 84.9 percent of 18 to 24 year olds completed high school as of October 2008, up from 83.9 percent in 2007.
Although the economic environment makes two-year colleges more attractive to many students, enrollment statistics for four-year colleges have not dropped during this recession. According to the study, they have held steady despite tuition increases averaging 4.9 percent per year.
The number of students enrolled at UC Davis has actually increased – from 23,499 students in 2007 to 24,209 in 2008. Despite the increase in community college enrollment, there are still more applicants to UC Davis than are admitted each year.
“One of the things about UC Davis is that we are very selective,” said Frank Wada from the University Registrar. “We have a number of students eligible and close to 40,000 applications every year. We admit a little over 50 percent of these students.”
The Pew study collected enough information to estimate the enrollment figures for 2009.
College enrollment estimates based on the September 2009 Current Population Survey suggest that enrollment among 18 to 24 year-olds has not decreased from its 2008 peak. The Pew Research Center found that in September, 39.9 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college, as opposed to 38.6 percent in 2008. This information suggests that enrollment will continue to be high this coming year, the study says.
“We are very interested in what this increased community college enrollment may mean for the future,” said Wada. “Even though we have had to cut down on freshman enrollment every year, the one number we are actually being told to increase is community college transfers.”
SARAH HANSEL can be reached at email@example.com.