Is This The End Of The College Boom?

Sep 5, 2013
Originally published on September 5, 2013 4:56 pm

The Census Bureau reports that the number of students pursuing college degrees has fallen for the first time since 2006.

The greatest decline happened among students age 25 and older.

Derek Thompson, business editor for The Atlantic, joins us to explain what the statistics mean.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

Colleges and universities are back in session, but fewer students are attending them. A new census report out this week shows that college enrollment dropped last year for the first time since 2006. Derek Thompson, business editor of The Atlantic, joins us on Thursdays. Hi, there, Derek.


CHAKRABARTI: So take us through this census numbers. What do they show about college enrollment?

THOMPSON: Indeed. The (unintelligible) in college dorms were slightly less crowded last year.


THOMPSON: Overall, college enrollment, as you said, in 2006 fell by half a million students. But context here is rather useful. Enrollment was way up since 2006, up 3.2 million. So I would say don't call this a trend. Call it a correction.

And two sort of interesting stats when you dig into the census report. First, the vast, vast majority of this drop came from older students, older than 25, and that has some interesting implications we can talk about. And second is that we're seeing college become much more diverse. White student enrollment dropped from 67 percent to 58 percent, nine percentage points, and almost all of that was made up by an increase in Hispanics.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, interesting. So, two really fascinating shifts, here. The age of students, ages 25 and older, they accounted for about 90 percent of that overall drop in college enrollment. So, first of all, as you said, tell us what that means.

THOMPSON: Right. So it's clear to some economists that, you know, college is expensive. It's a cost, and it's a cost in two ways. First, you're paying for it with money that you have. And second, you're giving up money that you're not making. So there's an enormous opportunity cost for leaving the workforce. But when the economy stinks, there's not much of an opportunity cost, because you're not really going to get jobs that don't exist. So we tend to see more people in their 20s go to college when there's a recession. But the recession has eased, and the recovery has been steady. And so it's possible that these 20-somethings that otherwise were thinking about going to college are now taking productive jobs in the economy. And that's a good sign.

And so what I argued today in The Atlantic is that although this drop is sort of scary for people like me who think that college is a wonderful way to prepare young people for the future of the economy, it also suggests that the economy, right now, is getting a little bit better.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. So you don't think that it has anything to do with the ever-increasing cost of college and ever rising student loan debt?

THOMPSON: Oh, I never say never. I would say that, yes, there is a long-standing trend of both sticker-price tuition getting higher, of net college costs getting higher as states have cut back their assistance, their help for public colleges. We've seen college get more expensive much faster than we've seen wages grow. And at some point, there's going to be some blowback.

But I would caution against using one census report to make an overall point. What we've seen in the last six years is that college enrollment has increased by 18 percent, 3.2 million. This one-year downturn was only about a sixth of that. So the overall trend is college getting more expensive, and at the same time, more students attending.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in the last couple of seconds that we have, let's talk about that other interesting demographic shift that you mentioned a minute or two ago, and that is that enrollment for Hispanics rose between 11 and 17 percent, quite a bit.

THOMPSON: Right. The younger generation is the most generation - most diverse generation in American history. And this is just something that we're going to see more and more of, is primary schools and secondary schools getting more diverse. And this is simple population growth. There are more Hispanics in the United States than there have ever been. And those immigration numbers we think could actually increase if the economy gets better as more people choose to move in the U.S. So colleges are getting more diverse, and that, I think, is a good story as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Derek Thompson, business editor of The Atlantic. Always great to have you, Derek. Thanks you so much.

THOMPSON: Great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: We'll be back in a minute, so stick with us. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.