In the face of crippling student debt and a troubled labor market, Florida officials are puzzled why college enrollment is dipping

Florida college officials are trying to figure out what’s behind a continuing drop in state college enrollment, which analysts project could decline by more than 9 percent over the next five years if the trend persists.

The most recent end-of-year data on college system enrollment showed a system-wide enrollment of 293,493 students for the 2020-21 academic year.

Estimates for the 2021-22 academic year that were adopted Tuesday by the state Office of Economic and Demographic Research reflected a statewide enrollment of 277,279 college students, showing a 5.5 percent decrease, or a decline of 16,214 students.

“Although some colleges did project increases in enrollment with reasonable justification, the majority of the colleges continue to project flat or declining enrollment based on the uncertainty of the future, given the ongoing COVID and economic issues,” Lisa Cook, Division of Florida Colleges’ associate vice chancellor for financial policy, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The steady decline of college enrollment in Florida began long before the coronavirus pandemic. The system now has about 100,000 fewer students than it did at the height of enrollment a decade ago. The 2010-11 academic year had an enrollment of 375,292 college students.

And that trend doesn’t appear to be stopping in the next five years, according to state economists. By the 2026-27 academic year, college enrollment is projected to decline by 9.3 percent, or 27,250 students.

Amy Baker, the state’s chief economist, said that Tuesday’s estimate is “on the low side” of what enrollment could be over the coming years.

“If you do any long-term planning with these numbers, probably recognize that there's some reason to believe that they’re low, that that’s kind of the lowest it could possibly be,” she said.

College officials, meanwhile, are trying to puzzle out why postsecondary students appear to be gravitating away from two-year degrees.

A higher number of part-time students attending colleges than those attending state universities might be one factor contributing to the enrollment dip, Florida College System Chancellor Kathryn Hebda said during Tuesday’s meeting.

“In the college system, also, our baccalaureate students maintained and sometimes even increased enrollment,” Hebda said of enrollment during the pandemic.

Students seeking baccalaureate degrees comprise just five or six percent of the college system’s total enrollment, “so it’s not going to affect the big picture,” Hebda noted.

“But those students seem to be on-mission and have an ability to persist, where so many other students who are part-time, it’s very easy for things — even when there isn’t a pandemic — to cause them to stop out or drop out,” she said.

College officials also said that increased online education options outside of the college system could account for some students seeking degrees elsewhere.

Another area of slipping enrollment is in students seeking associate in arts, or A.A., degrees.

Hebda said that the gap is shrinking between college students seeking A.A. degrees and those pursuing workforce education programs, which in some instances can be “non-fundable” and thus not included in total system enrollment counted by state estimators.

And, Hebda said, the requirements for students transitioning from an associate degree to programs at four-year universities have gotten more strenuous in recent years.

“We’re also working in the college system to make sure students who enroll in an A.A. are on a pathway, A.A. into a specific degree program. Because prerequisites are a lot more plentiful and required than they used to be in the old days, so it’s much harder for a student to get a general A.A. and transfer into a specific baccalaureate program,” Hebda said.

Baker pointed out that the continuing drop in college enrollment, which follows a national trend, puts Florida colleges on a track to drop below the state university system’s enrollment in the coming years, if the decline persists.

“We’re very close to crossing the enrollment in the state college system … dropping below the enrollment in the university system. And that would be, I’m trying to think of a good word, historic? Or very, very atypical for us in Florida,” Baker said.



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