College & Workforce Readiness

More Students Seek Bachelor’s Degrees, Even as Policymakers Push Other Options

By Catherine Gewertz — December 20, 2017 2 min read
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Policymakers have been focusing intensely on college options that don’t lead to a bachelor’s degree, but new statistics suggest that those arguments aren’t translating into enrollment increases in those programs.

Data released this week by the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks college enrollment, shows that bachelor’s degree programs saw rising enrollment in the fall of 2017, while all other sectors of higher education saw continued declines.

Overall college enrollment declined 1 percent between the fall of 2016 and the fall of 2017, according to the NSC. That’s the sixth straight year of declines, according to Inside Higher Ed. Undergraduate enrollment declined by 1.4 percent in the past year, and graduate programs by .9 percent.

But here’s how the undergraduate enrollment breaks down by program type:

  • Associate degree: - 2.3 percent
  • Certificates and other nondegree credentials: - 10.7 percent
  • Four-year degrees: + 1.5 percent

A recent study by the American Enterprise Institute urged Americans to get past their “fixation” on the four-year college degree. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other top officials in the Trump administration have repeatedly argued that students should consider postsecondary pathways that don’t require the time and debt of bachelor’s degrees.

Labor-market researchers have pointed out that there are millions of good-paying jobs that don’t require bachelor’s degrees. (And they’ve also pointed out that earnings vary widely by field, and have noted that for overall lifetime earnings, the bachelor’s degree is still the “gold standard.”)

In that light, the declines in all areas but bachelor’s degree programs are notable. A number of factors could play into the dropoffs, including a lower birth rate, rising tuition, and an economy that is drawing more young people into the workforce, according to the Hechinger Report.

All types of higher education institutions saw enrollment declines in the past year, but they were most severe at four-year for-profits (7 percent drop). Two-year public institutions saw a decline of 1.7 percent, while four-year public and private schools experienced declines of less than .5 percent.

Enrollment of first-time college students, across all type of higher education institution, declined 2.3 percent in the last year.

Fulltime student enrollment rose 0.3 percent, while part-time enrollment dropped 3.3 percent.

Aside from the rise in enrollment for bachelor’s degree programs, one of the few other increases in the study was by gender: Four-year public institutions saw a 0.2 percent increase among women. That increase didn’t hold among colleges and universities overall: enrollment by women was down 0.7 percent, and enrollment by men was down 1.5 percent. At four-year private schools, female enrollment was flat in the past year.

The biggest growth in students’ choice of academic focus at four-year institutions came in construction trades (9.4 percent), science technologies/technicians (6.8 percent), computer and information sciences and support services (6.1 percent), transportation and materials moving (5.9 percent), and architecture and related services (5.2 percent).

At two-year institutions, the biggest gains were in science technologies/technicians (17.4 percent), biological and biomedical sciences (15.4 percent), and history (12.4 percent).

See also:

Trump Executive Order Ramps Up Apprenticeship Programs

Art: Getty Images

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.