Is the High Cost of Tuition Causing Decreased College Enrollment?

Kevin Ott
Rising tuition rates not linked to decreases in enrollment

According to recent data on college enrollment, published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, colleges are beginning to see a downward trend in admissions enrollment that may have some college admissions officials concerned. Colleges across the country are facing a sobering reality: less students are enrolling in college, and more students are dropping out. As the public becomes increasingly alarmed about skyrocketing tuition costs, news outlets and blogs are buzzing about the latest reports showing decline in enrollment.

Alleged Link Between Tuition and Enrollment

Many people who express anger about skyrocketing costs claim there is a direct correlation between tuition hikes and lower enrollment. However, recent studies do not support their claims about tuition hikes and drops in enrollment.

The Hemelt and Marcotte Study

In 2008, professors Dr. Steven Hemelt and Dr. David Marcotte completed one of the first major academic treatises of the 2000s that analyzed the relationship between tuition and enrollment. They concluded that tuition increases had an insignificant impact on enrollment. A $100 increase in tuition produced less than one percent in enrollment decreases. However, they noted that rising tuition had a slightly larger effect on decreasing enrollment at Research I schools.

The DeLeeuw Study

In late 2012, a study by Dr. Jamie DeLeeuw of Monroe Community College confirmed for the community college model what Hemelt and Marcotte had concluded about four-year, public schools. Arguably, in the most sophisticated enrollment study available to the public, Dr. DeLeeuw concluded that tuition rates had no relationship to credit hour enrollment. Dr. DeLeeuw instead found a connection between enrollment and unemployment rates: "...credit hour enrollment grew slightly as the unemployment rate increased; individuals appear to seek education when jobs are scarce."

California Community Colleges

One of the most significant enrollment drops in the nation belongs to California's community colleges. However, the enrollment plunge for the financially troubled state has been attributed to its government's fiscal mismanagement, not tuition increases.

Unemployment Rates and College Enrollment

In an interview with USA Today, Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, states that college enrollments nationwide dramatically increased in 2011 as the recession grew. Joblessness pushed people to return to school, but now that the economy is showing encouraging signs, enrollment is decreasing as people return to the job market.

Humanizing the Numbers

Even though the recent decrease in enrollment has been small, these modest percentages represent hundreds of thousands of students. The experience of dropping out of college can be heartbreaking for students as they wrestle with high levels of student debt without a degree to show for it. Besides low-income families, a larger amount of middle-class families are also seeing their college dreams dashed because they can't keep up with rising tuition costs.

The Myth that All College Administrations Deserve Ridicule

Although this crisis in higher education paints an unflattering portrait of college administrators, the evil and heartless stereotype can be unfair. Many of these people see the same problem of rising costs and want to fix it. In fact, an increasing number of colleges, especially private institutions, have been freezing their tuition rates.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Although the evidence refutes the idea that rising tuition has a direct correlation with decrease in enrollment, it cannot be denied that tuition has been skyrocketing, outpacing both inflation and median household income. As Forbes points out, the sizes and costs of college administrations have soared in recent decades. Inefficiency has a role in some schools, but a better explanation is that the public has increasingly demanded services that require more staff:

  • Round-the-clock IT services
  • On-campus luxuries such as concert venues and all-night coffee shops
  • Risk management departments dedicated to extensive anti-terror safety measures and campus-wide training drills
  • Diversity services with fully-staffed departments dedicated to each ethnicity on campus
  • On-campus living amenities such as post offices, reprographic services, fitness centers, heated pools, shuttling services, on-campus banks, medical care, and personal counseling services
  • Comprehensive career counseling and job placement services

Tough Questions

While all of these services are valuable, they each contribute to the cost of tuition. Instead of looking for a conspiracy theory that proves how greedy college administrators are responsible for decreases in enrollment, parents and students should examine American culture and ask some tough questions: what are they willing to do without in the college experience? Are swelling administrative college costs and rising tuition rates a reflection of institutional glut or of a culture that demands an exorbitant variety of services from their schools? The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Is the High Cost of Tuition Causing Decreased College Enrollment?