Number of U.S. colleges and universities that award federal financial aid fell by 5.6 percent in 2018-19, to lowest mark in two decades.
Higher education enrollments have been falling for years, a well-documented outcome that can be attributed to some combination of a strong U.S. economy, changes in birth rates and, perhaps, growing doubts about the value of a college degree.
Another decline is also unfolding — this one attributable to a mix of economic and political forces: the number of colleges and universities in the United States is at its lowest ebb since at least 1998.
Data released by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics Friday included statistics on a range of topics, including total head count of enrolled students through 2017-18 and the number of colleges and universities in the most recent academic year, 2018-19.
The enrollment data confirm what most college officials who’ve been paying attention already know: that the number of people enrolled in U.S. colleges has tumbled since the recession, dropping from a total head-count peak of 29.5 million in 2010-11 to 26.4 million in 2017-18.
The overall decline of more than 10 percent has been fueled by drops of 47 percent and 23 percent in total head-count enrollments in for-profit and community colleges in that seven-year period, and despite increases in enrollment at public four-year colleges (12.2 percent) and four-year private nonprofit colleges (5.2 percent) during that time.
Those enrollment trends have been fairly well documented, both by federal data and those reported regularly by the National Student Clearinghouse.
Less frequently examined, however, are what has happened to colleges and universities themselves over that time. In total, the number of American colleges and universities eligible to award federal financial aid fell to 6,138 in 2018-19, down 5.6 percent from 6,502 the year before.
As seen both in the chart below and the table at bottom, different sectors of higher education have experienced very different patterns over the last decade — some better understood than others.
For-profit colleges exploded in number during the (countercyclical) boom years during and immediately after the recession, when displaced workers flooded into vocational programs, drawn both by the sometimes realistic promise of more training and better wages and by sometimes cynical (if not illegal) marketing tactics. The improvement of the economy in the early part of this decade, combined with the regulatory crackdown on for-profit colleges by the Obama administration, cut those numbers almost in half.
The number of public four-year colleges has grown fairly steadily throughout the last 20 years, although a fair bit of that growth has resulted from the transformation of what were once community colleges into four-year institutions, as they began offering significant numbers of bachelor’s degrees. The resulting decline in the number of public two-year institutions, of more than 20 percent, can also be at least partially attributable to that shift.
The number of four-year private colleges grew during most of the last two decades but has dropped by a little over a percentage point in the last three years. That may be due to an uptick in the number of closures and mergers of private institutions.
Number of U.S. Postsecondary Institutions Awarding Federal Aid, by Sector