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Last modified: Wednesday, July 20, 2011

IU research center, National Student Clearinghouse report: Recession saw growth in two-year college enrollment, stable numbers elsewhere

July 20, 2011

New study analyzes the "Great Recession" impact on higher education enrollment

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new report issued by Indiana University's Project on Academic Success (PAS) and the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center finds that college enrollments during the U.S. economic recession of 2007 to 2009 did not shift as deeply as some in higher education had feared.

The report, "National Postsecondary Enrollment Trends: Before, During, and After the Great Recession," concludes that community college enrollments increased during the recent recession, driving an overall rise in college enrollment. But despite family financial strains and public concerns about college affordability, private four-year institutions maintained market share better than expected, while public four-year colleges and universities saw virtually no overall change in enrollment.

The analysis of enrollment data from the NSC's comprehensive national student database covers first-time students enrolling in colleges and universities during the fall term each year from 2006 through 2010. It is the first in the NSC Research Center's new Signature Report series, now available at The NSC Research Center is the research arm of the non-profit organization that verifies college enrollment and granted degrees from most postsecondary institutions nationwide.

"During the years covered in this study, widespread economic stresses led to concerns about unpredictable enrollments, surges in community college enrollments, uncertainties in financial aid practices and cuts in state support of institutions," said Don Hossler, professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the IU School of Education, executive director of research at the NSC Research Center and a published expert in student achievement and college choice and enrollment. "Even now, two years after the official end of the recession, unemployment remains high, state budgets are still shrinking and family finances are still under stress. Yet the findings in this report suggest that many institutions -- perhaps through adapted enrollment management, recruitment and financial aid strategies -- appear to have weathered these tough years better than anticipated."

"This report provides evidence to help institutions gauge their own trends during this economic situation," said Vasti Torres, director at PAS, a part of the Center for Postsecondary Research at IU, and also professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. "It also confirmed the enrollment trends felt by community colleges over the past couple of years."

The PAS conducts practice- and policy-oriented research on opportunity and equity in postsecondary education and the multiple pathways of 21st-century students toward postsecondary academic success and employment. Other PAS co-authors are Mary Ziskin, senior associate director; Desiree Zerquera, visiting assistant director for research; Jin Chen, research associate; and Sarah Martin, editor.

The major report findings include:

  • Community colleges experienced increases in enrollment.
  • The four-year private sector maintained its market share more effectively than predicted.
  • The proportion of students enrolling full time in public two-year institutions increased slightly; four-year institutions saw virtually no change. As public university enrollments in many states reached capacity, students may have gone in greater numbers to community colleges and private institutions.
  • Each region of the country experienced distinct enrollment patterns.
  • Persistence rates (continued enrollment with any U.S. institution) were considerably higher than retention rates (continued enrollment within the same institution) in all institutional categories, with gaps between the two measures ranging from just under 10 percent to over 18 percent. The differences in these findings suggest greater-than-expected rates among traditional-age students of enrollment mobility across multiple institutions -- an enrollment behavior generally considered more typical of nontraditional students.

Among the policy recommendations the report suggests is a better focus on easing transfer for the increasing number of community college students who may be utilizing a less expensive two-year option toward a four-year degree. The report indicates policymakers should consider the relatively unchanged public four-year institution enrollment numbers carefully. While lower cost two-year and higher-cost private four-year options have seen some growth, public four-year institutions have remained the same. The report states that state policymakers should keep long-term impacts in mind for potential public higher education students during the debate over higher-education support.

The full report is available online. The NSC's Signature Reports focus on important issues related to students' college access and progression nationwide. The Research Center hopes to expand the knowledge base on student enrollment and other important student outcomes by releasing reports in the future that will examine student transfer patterns, graduation and more.