Friday, May 15, 2009

Shifting Freshman Market Shares

On April 28th the Bureau of Labor Statistics released it’s annual report College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2008 High School Graduates. BLS has released this report annually since 1959. These are data collected by the Census Bureau in the October supplement to the Current population Survey. The reported data provide the first comprehensive look at the transition from high school into college in 2008. I know we are all busy speculating what is going to happen in the fall during this the second year of the current economic recession.

The media have not yet reported from these powerful BLS data. I was blown away by one part of these data: the massive shift of high school graduates entering college through the 2-year portal and away from the 4-year portal. In 2001 68.1% of college freshmen who were recent high school graduates were enrolled in 4-year institutions (and 31.9% in 2-year institutions). Then in 2002 freshmen began a gradual shift away from 4-year to 2-year colleges. By 2007 the share entering 4-year colleges and universities had dropped to 64.1% (and 2-year had risen to 35.8%).

Then the recession began in December 2007. By fall 2008 the economy was in free fall. Families had lost a great deal of their investments in the stock market. And the share of 4-year college freshmen who were recent high school graduates dropped to 59.7% (while the 2-year college share rose to 40.3%). In one year, between 2007 and 2008, there was 4.4% shift in market share from 4-year to 2-year colleges.

Out of 2,161,000 fall 2008 freshmen this means that about 95,000 college freshmen had shifted from 4-year to 2-year colleges compared to the 2007 market shares. Compared to the 4-year market share in 2001 this means that in 2008 about 181,500 college freshmen have shifted from 4-year to 2-year colleges to begin their higher education careers.

The 2008 college continuation rate in 2008 was 68.6% which ties the record rate set in 2005. These 2008 freshmen are also attending college full-time at record high rates. So the story is this: the kids are trying hard to get a college education, but the world around them is failing them. The system is failing them.

We see why in another set of data that we are mining: the 2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. The financial barriers to higher education faced by students from the bottom half of the family income distribution are greater than they have been since these data were first reported in 1990. No wonder our country feels like it is in free-fall, because it is.