North Dakota Among States With Biggest Drop in Higher Education Enrollment, and Maybe That’s Not a Bad Thing


“College enrollment in the U.S. has decreased for the eighth consecutive year, according to new data released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center,” Inside Higher Ed reports. “The report covers 97 percent of enrollments at degree-granting postsecondary institutions that are eligible to receive federal financial aid.”

You can read the entire NSCRC report here.

“Alaska, Florida, Illinois, North Dakota, Hawaii and Kansas had the largest percentage declines,” the Inside Higher Ed article notes.

North Dakota saw a 4.5 percent drop in enrollment from Spring 2018 to Spring 2019, going from 48,358 students to 46,172. It’s a more than 6 percent drop since Spring 2017.

Those numbers are for all institutions of higher education in North Dakota – both private and public – but based on data used by the state Legislature the decline trend is present in the state’s public institutions specifically (click for a larger view, and note that the most recent numbers are projections):

These numbers aren’t a precise apples-to-apples comparison with the NSCRC report. The chart above is measuring full time equivalent enrollments, while the NSCRC is using a headcount. Also the Legislature’s numbers are looking at enrollments over the course of our biennial budget cycle where the NSCRC is measuring spring enrollment numbers.

Still, if we’re just comparing trends, the decline in North Dakota’s public institutions is very real too. The projected decline for the coming biennium is 1.2 percent. The decline from the 2009 – 2011 to 2017 – 2019 is 3.2 percent. The average biennial decline during that time period has been nearly 1 percent.

On a side note, spending increases have averaged 4 percent during that time even despite massive post-oil boom budget cuts. Taxpayers are spending more to educate fewer students.

Go figure.

Anyway, budget questions aside, is declining enrollment such a bad thing? I’m not sure it is. One problem with our past approach to higher education was the belief that every kid should go through a traditional on-campus process in pursuit of a two or four year degree. The idea being that if we got the kids degrees they’d earn more money and have better lives.

Education is important for everyone, but I don’t think that delivery mechanism actually works for everyone. It’s been great for the higher education industry, but not so good for students.

If these admittedly modest enrollment declines are an indication that North Dakota students are choosing other paths to prosperity, I think it’s a good sign. It could mean some dire things for the current model of higher education – some people who earn some very large salaries may find themselves looking for new jobs – but it was a bad model built on the wrong priorities.