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Enrollment decline has been a reality for colleges and universities across the nation, including those in York County, for a number of years, but a report last month showed the situation is growing more dire.

For the first time in a decade, unduplicated enrollment — meaning students who were not counted more than once for applying to multiple schools — dropped below 18 million nationally.

The decline reaches every sector, whether private or public, four-year or two-year, nonprofit or for-profit, according to December data from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

And Pennsylvania had the fifth largest decline in the country with a drop of 14,799 students — trailing Florida, New York, California and Missouri, respectively.

Locally, Penn State York accepted 120 fewer students in 2019 than in the year prior, and overall enrollment fell 25% from 2015 to 2019. York College saw 5% fewer freshmen enroll in fall 2019 compared with fall 2017. 

Across the state, Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education saw its 14 state-owned universities hemorrhage 20% of enrollment collectively since 2010.

Part of that drop can be contributed to a strong job market nationwide and a declining number of high school graduates — especially in the Northeast and Midwest, where populations have declined as a whole. 

More: York County colleges, others across the state see enrollment decline

But there's a steeper decline in older adult students who are rejoining the workforce after the recession because the employment rate is now at historic lows, said Doug Shapiro, executive research director at Clearinghouse.

"Right now the biggest driving factor is still older adults who are finding work a more appealing option right now than college," he said.

Clearinghouse reported the average age of full-time undergrads dropped over the last four years, and first-time enrollment decreased for 18- to 24-year-olds at all institutions except public two-year schools.

Those numbers also seem to indicate more students are working or going for alternative options such as certificates that lead to workforce opportunities, which York County districts such as Hanover Public are offering locally.

More: Hanover High gives culinary students an edge in local market

National Center for Education Statistics data tracking 2013 grads showed the more career and technical education credits students took in high school, the more likely they were to be working after graduation without attending college.

Students who took three CTE credits or more in high school were less likely to be either working while in school or attending school without working after graduation than those who took fewer credits.

“Maybe the message that College is Not for All is getting through,” read a tweet from Lincoln IU 12 STEM, linking to an article about declining enrollment.

Red Lion Area Superintendent Scott Deisley said he's heard of a lot of students who don't complete college or don't end up end up in the field of study that goes with their degree, which makes quicker alternative training paths an attractive option. 

The cost of traditional college education also is a concern for students, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based left-leaning think tank.

Data from the institute shows public spending in education has not kept pace for per-student costs — as full-time enrollment increased up until its peak in 2011, appropriations decreased, putting more cost burden on students.

With higher tuition costs, it's more difficult to complete school, and those who don't are saddled with debt without the degree to support the payoff, Gould said.

Pennsylvania has the second highest affordability gap in the nation for low-income students at public four-year institutions at $12,331, meaning that's the cost of education minus income at minimum wage 10 hours per week, according to a study by another Washington-based left-leaning think tank, The Education Trust.

"I think a lot of young people find that a huge barrier," Gould said, adding that the bottom 60% of graduates still have lower wages than they did in 2000 or in 2007.

Meanwhile, there are trade jobs with higher-than-typical payouts, Gould said, adding that more than 70% of the fastest-growing jobs do not require a college degree.

Pennsylvania has had a big push for career and technical education.

More: Report: Pa. districts need more state funding for technical schools

More: Northeastern's commercial driving class is first of kind in Pa.

Liberal arts education especially has seen a decline in the last decade, according to NCES data, and Clearinghouse data shows most majors declined in the past three years except for trade and technology fields such as communication technology, which saw a 7.8% increase. 

But Daniel Green, vice president of enrollment management at York College, said he'd be worried that if students go directly into the workplace, their salary potential could be capped as the job skills needed change over time.

"I worry about the long-term opportunities for those without a bachelor's degree," he said.

In fact, a variety of research shows much more growth potential, quality of life, increased salaries and lifetime earnings from college, Green said.

Enrollment will see a slight uptick over the next few years, Shapiro said, but unfortunately it will dramatically drop again over the next four to five.

Inside Higher Ed referenced research from Nathan D. Grawe's 2018 book, “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” that said the recession in 2008 led to drops in birth rates, which will start affecting enrollment by 2026.

Ten percent fewer students will be going to college by 2029, Grawe predicted, but elite colleges will feel less of an impact than smaller, regional institutions.

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