Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico’s colleges and universities saw – by far – the steepest enrollment drop in the nation over the past year.
From spring semester 2014 to the spring of 2015, enrollment in New Mexico’s post-secondary institutions plummeted 8.3 percent, compared with a national decline of 1.9 percent, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Overall, New Mexico had 10,914 fewer students enrolled in its colleges and universities this spring when compared to last spring.
“The declining enrollments in higher education are a concern,” said CNM President Kathie Winograd. “In New Mexico, we need to be increasing the percentage of our population that possesses higher education credentials, in order to generate a more robust economy that provides more good jobs.”
Oklahoma, with a 5.5 percent drop, had the second biggest decline in enrollment, according to the national study. Only two other states were hit by 5 percent or greater losses: Kentucky, 5.3 percent, and Missouri, 5 percent.
Enrollment increased in just nine states, scattered across the country, while declines were recorded in 41. New Hampshire registered the largest growth, 19 percent, followed by Utah with 4.8 percent and Connecticut with 3 percent.
About 18.6 million students are enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities, down about 1 million since 2011.
At that time, because of the great economic recession that began three years earlier, enrollment peaked as more adult workers turned to school for retraining. Since then, as the labor market gradually improved, many of those adult students have left school to go back to work.
“The recovering job market is the most likely cause of the enrollment decline,” said Jason DeWitt, research manager at the Clearinghouse.
He noted that, since October 2009, the nation’s unemployment rate has dropped 4 full percentage points.
Why the decline?
That, however, doesn’t explain why the decline is so great in New Mexico, where the economy lags behind much of the nation. Although New Mexico has now seen nine consecutive months of economic growth and added an estimated 12,000 jobs for the year, the recovery in most other states has been stronger.
If anything, the economic data might suggest that people would stay in school rather than leave.
“Our report is focused more on the national numbers, and it’s harder for me to speculate on the drivers in individual states,” DeWitt said. “However, I can say that the enrollment declines in New Mexico were not entirely driven by one or two institutions. Rather, they took place in almost all of the state’s colleges …. The decline appears to be linked to population decline, particularly among young adults.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the state’s population decreased to 2,085,572 in 2014 from the previous year, when 2,086,895 people lived in New Mexico, a decrease of 1,323.
The report found that nationally the drop was greatest at four-year, for-profit colleges, 4.9 percent, and at two-year public colleges, 3.9 percent. Both sectors tend to attract larger numbers of older students.
At CNM, the state’s largest two-year school of higher education, enrollment has been declining for the past four years. Prior to that, it rose 10.8 percent in 2010 and another 4.9 percent in 2011, when it spiked at 28,826.
Then, with the economy slowly improving, enrollment dropped 4.7 percent in 2012, then fell again in 2013 by 1.6 percent. It was down again in 2014, by 5.1 percent, and, once again this year by an estimated 1.8 percent. The unofficial enrollment this spring was 25,197.
Winograd said a combination of factors are contributing to the declines.
First, because the economy is picking up steam, “more people could be getting jobs instead of attending college,” she said. Moreover, the number of people moving out of New Mexico has increased, “which can impact college enrollments.” Related to that is the decline in the number of high school students, “which leads to a smaller pool of potential college students.”
Winograd said she hopes the downward trend of the last few years will change soon.
Over at UNM, enrollment has also been sliding for the past few years. And officials there cite many of the same factors as Winograd.
Terry Babbitt, UNM’s associate vice president for enrollment management, said economics and demographics are lurking behind the wings.
“This January, the unemployment rate was 5.9 percent,” he said. “The previous January it was 6.7 percent. That one percentage point counts.”
He noted that, unlike many four-year institutions nationally but like other schools in the state, UNM has a higher average student age. Not only that, New Mexico is one of six states that recently reported a decrease in population.
“We have people leaving the state who normally would be college students,” Babbitt said.
While UNM’s enrollment dropped 3 percent for the year, the enrollment at four-year public schools climbed 0.1 percent nationally.
Meanwhile, at New Mexico State University, enrollment declined 5.6 percent from the fall 2013 semester to the beginning of this academic year.
Other findings in the report that covers 96 percent of schools eligible for Title IV federal aid:
- Students over the age of 24 represent 38 percent of the total spring 2015 enrollments, but account for 74 percent of the decline in total enrollments over the past year.
- Two-year public institutions lost nearly a quarter of a million enrollments in the past year and are down 415,000 from spring 2013. Students over the age of 24 account for three-quarters of this decline.
- Full-time enrollment declined at a higher rate, 2 percent, than part-time enrollment, 1.7 percent.
- Enrollment of men declined by 2.1 percent, a slightly higher rate than women, 1.7 percent.