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Total Higher Education Enrollment Fell in 2011

October 17, 2012

The recent economic struggles appear to have begun to affect postsecondary attendance at American higher education institutions, especially two-year public (community) colleges. Data compiled from two new reports from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), "Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2011; Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2011; and Graduation Rates, Selected Cohorts, 2003-2008" and "Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2010; Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2010; and Graduation Rates, Selected Cohorts, 2002-07" show that the total number of students enrolled at community colleges fell to 7.125 million in fall 2011 from 7.285 million in fall 2010, a 2.2 percent decrease. Enrollment at proprietary (private for-profit) institutions fell nearly 3 percent during the same period, from 2.43 million to 2.36 million. These decreases were partially offset by rising numbers of students who attended four-year public and private non-profit colleges and universities, which grew by 1.5 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively. Overall, total postsecondary enrollment at American colleges and universities fell from 21.588 million in fall 2010 to 21.554 million in fall 2011.

In addition to the decline in total enrollment, more of those attending college classes were doing so on a part-time basis. Total full-time enrollment fell 0.8 percent from 2010 to 2011, while part-time attendees increased 0.9 percent. As a result, the share of all students enrolled full-time declined from 62.7 percent in 2010 to 62.3 percent in 2011.

Enrollment Changes by Various Demographic Categories

Much of the overall decrease in total enrollment was due to a decline in the number of male students. The number of men attending postsecondary institutions fell 0.3 percent, while the number of women was essentially unchanged. Enrollments by race/ethnicity also varied widely, with the number of white, non-Hispanic students declining 1.4 percent; enrollments of African American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian American/Pacific Islander, and Native Americans collectively increased by 4.9 percent. Total enrollment of non-U.S. citizens grew nearly 5 percent, while enrollments of U.S. citizens and permanent residents fell roughly 0.3 percent.

Enrollments Fell Despite Increases in Funding for Student Financial Aid

Attendance at colleges and universities decreased in spite of increases in amounts of institutionally funded student financial aid provided by many higher education institutions. Total expenditures for student scholarships and fellowships by four-year public colleges and universities jumped from $9.4 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2010 to $10.1 billion in FY11, a 7.4 percent in inflation-adjusted value (2011 dollars). Institutional grants provided by community colleges jumped 14.1 percent, from $6.6 billion to $7.5 billion. Grants provided by four-year private non-profit institutions grew nearly 10 percent. Institutional grant aid was the fastest growing expenditure category for public and private non-profit colleges and universities. As grant spending by community colleges rose more than 14 percent, expenditures for student services fell roughly 1 percent and spending on academic instruction grew only 1 percent. At four-year public institutions, the 10 percent increase in institutional grant expenditures compares with a 0.6 percent increase in instructional dollars and a 1.1 percent increase in funds spent on research. Four-year private non-profit colleges and universities increase their amount spent on instruction increased by 1 percent, while spending on research increased about 4 percent. Total expenditures at both public and private four-year colleges and universities grew 1.4 percent. 

Copies of the two reports are available for no charge from the NCES web site.


Ken Redd
Director, Research and Policy Analysis