Overall college enrollment fell for the second year in a row in 2013, from about 20.2 million students in the fall of 2012 to about 19.9 million this year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that efforts to improve college access have been unsuccessful, says Jason DeWitt, research manager of the NSC Research Center. The 1.5 percent overall decrease from last year can be attributed to a number of factors, DeWitt says, particularly the changing demographics of the student population.
"Because the size of the high school graduating classes has been decreasing, the pool of students that can go to college is smaller," DeWitt says. "Folks who are trying to improve college access, I don't think the vision is that everybody's supposed to follow the exact same path."
When looking at different types of higher education institutions, four-year, for-profit colleges had the largest enrollment decrease at 9.7 percent, followed by two-year public colleges at 3.1 percent. But enrollment at four-year public colleges and four-year private, nonprofit colleges actually increased by 0.3 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively.
That decrease is likely due to increased scrutiny of the for-profit sector, which has been well-documented by the media, DeWitt says.
But also in the mix are economic factors. DeWitt says some of the statistics, especially a larger decrease in the number of students over the age of 24 enrolling in college, could be a sign of an improving economy. Older students, he says, could be returning to the job market or pursuing other types of workforce credentials.
Overall, the number of students over the age of 24 who enrolled in college this fall fell 3.4 percent from last year, compared with a 0.4 percent decrease in the number of students under 24. But that smaller decrease, DeWitt says, is very much in line with projected declines in the number of graduating high school seniors.
There were, however, other more noticeable declines that varied by region and state.
In the Midwest, for example, 11 of 12 states saw enrollment decreases, compared with 13 of 17 states in the South. The Midwest saw a 2.6 percent decline in college enrollment, while at the other end of the spectrum, the Northeast saw just a 0.3 percent decline.
That's because the Midwest reached its projected peak for the number of high school graduates in 2007-08, while other regions reached their peak in the 2010-11 school year, according to a December 2012 report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
But there weren't decreases everywhere. States across the country – including Delaware, Idaho, Nevada and Rhode Island – saw modest enrollment increases of up to nearly 2 percent. DeWitt also said the size of high school graduating classes in the South is expected to start rising again, making it the only region expected to see growth through 2027-28.
Notably, college enrollment in New Hampshire increased by about 13 percent between 2012 and 2013 – the largest increase nationwide.
Although it's difficult to pinpoint the cause of enrollment increases, DeWitt says he suspects it has something to do with a wide increase in online education.
"When a school starts an online program, it can grow so quickly," DeWitt says. "The role that online education may play in the future, in terms of enrollment management, is [uncharted territory]."
Corrected 12/13/13: This story has been changed to correct a reference to the enrollment change at for-profit colleges.