Before and During College: We Must Address Declining Enrollments By Making College More Affordable

The United States has a serious postsecondary educational problem. It’s affecting individual Americans and the whole nation. And though it needs to be addressed, it’s receiving scant attention.

From 2010 through 2017, fewer students enrolled in U.S. postsecondary degree-granting institutions every year. In 2017 almost 1,254,000 (6%) fewer Americans were attending such institutions than in 2010.

Federal enrollment compilations for 2018 aren’t yet published, but National Student Clearinghouse numbers suggest last fall will mark eight straight years of enrollment decline.

We’re in the knowledge-based century, so this matters — e.g. 79% of American manufacturing jobs went to those with high school diplomas or less in the 1970s, but now over half such jobs require some postsecondary education. Over 95% of all jobs created since the Great Recession went to workers with at least some college.

And for our nation to remain economically competitive, we need more Americans with postsecondary degrees. The U.S. now ranks 13th in the percentage of 25-34 year olds with these degrees (47.76%) — behind competitors like Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Here are some myths about our postsecondary enrollment decline . . .

  • Enrollment always increases during and drops after a recession: For nine straight post-World War II recessions, enrollment spiked in the fall closest to the peak of that recession’s unemployment rate. But the longest post-recession enrollment drop lasted just two years. Conversely, the seven-year post-Great Recession decline is the longest in U.S. history.

So what’s happening? Probably several things. But a most powerful one is surely the matter of postsecondary affordability.

In academic year 2018-19, the average total cost of attending public 4-year colleges and universities was 42% of 2017’s Median Household Income. No more than 24% of this cost was covered by the Federal Pell Grant, down from 43% two decades before. And 65% of 2017 bachelor’s degree recipients graduated after borrowing an average of $28,650.

These costs and debts doubtlessly frighten many students into joining, for example, the 56% who drop out of 4-year schools before completing bachelor’s degrees.

Moreover, the nation’s full-time equivalency rate of undergraduates fell almost 7% from 2010 through 2017. This indicates that increasing numbers are attending college part-time — a behavior strongly associated with dropping out.

But 78% of today’s postsecondary students work while enrolled, their jobs average 30 hours per week, and 25% of them work full-time. It’s nearly impossible to maintain full-time course loads with such demanding employment schedules. And what with escalating costs, family income limitations, and the shrinking “purchasing power” of their grants, students must work for money from sources in addition to or other than loans.

It’s time for policy makers to do something! It’s time to ensure that college becomes more, not less, affordable with each passing year. Reach out to your congressional and legislative representatives about this early and often between now and the 2020 election using Find Your Representative!

Seeking ways of your own to make education after high school more affordable? Let College Affordability Solutions help. Call or email us at (512) 366-5354 or

Authored by Tom Melecki, PhD, College Affordability Solutions.

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