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High Unemployment, High College Enrollment


High Unemployment, High College Enrollment


Census Shows Great Recession's Impact on College Enrollment

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The Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 was the largest economic downturn in recent memory. What many people may not know is how markedly college enrollment fluctuated during the recession and economic recovery period.

A new report released by the U.S. Census Bureau details the changes in residents’ college enrollment in the time before, during and since the recession.

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After 2010, as the labor market improved, fewer people chose to leave the labor market each year and enroll in college.

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Undergraduate college enrollment accounted for most of the change in college enrollment across the 2000 to 2015 period.

Two-year colleges accounted for a large portion of the change in undergraduate enrollment. Although two-year colleges accounted for one-third of undergraduate college enrollment before the recession, they accounted for half of the increase in the number enrolled as the recession hit.

By the time enrollment levels reached their peak in 2010 and 2011, enrollment levels were 33 percent higher than they were in 2006, putting a strain on two-year college systems.

The types of programs offered at two-year colleges and the lower cost relative to four-year colleges, which offer different programs of study, may account for some of the increase in enrollment at two-year colleges that occurred during the recession and into the recovery.

People may have enrolled in school to upgrade existing skills quickly or to acquire new skills during a period of deteriorating labor market conditions. Among people ages 15 to 34 who were not enrolled a year earlier, 1.0 million more enrolled in college in 2010 than in 2006.

After 2010, as the labor market improved, fewer people chose to leave the labor market each year and enroll in college. In 2015, 5.0 percent of people left the labor market to enroll in college. This was not statistically different from the proportion in 2006, before the recession.

As labor market conditions improved in the years after the recession, fewer people enrolled in college compared to 2011. From 2011 to 2015, two-year colleges accounted for 1.0 million of the 1.2 million-student decrease in undergraduate college enrollment.

As much as it is difficult for schools to handle a sharp rise in enrollment in a recession, the post-recession decline also created problems for those who manage two-year schools.

Some may worry that college enrollment will continue to decline and that the population’s collective level of educational attainment will decrease. However, the levels of college enrollment in years after the most recent recession are higher than in years before.

In 2015, enrollment in two-year colleges remained 10 percent above the level of 2006. This suggests that long-run gains in college enrollment were maintained.

Recent projections indicate that college enrollment will increase 15 percent, to 23 million, from 2014 to 2025. The number of associate’s, bachelor’s and advanced degrees completed will continue to rise in the long term.

To learn more about college enrollment before, during and after the recession, check out our Postsecondary Enrollment Before, During and After the Great Recession tip sheet.

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Erik Schmidt is a survey statistician in the Census Bureau's Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division.

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This story was posted in: Education

Tags: Education
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