More High School Seniors Opt for College as Job Market Shrinks

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for the current crop of high school seniors. On one hand, record numbers are applying to America’s col-leges, trade schools and universities as first-time freshmen. On the other hand, colleges are facing serious cutbacks in state and private funding. At the nexus of higher education’s blessings and curses is the anemic state of the United States economy, which has contributed to the boom and bust facing high education.
In its study Minorities and the Recession-Era College Boom, the Pew Research Center examined enrollment trends among minority and White first-time freshman students between 2007 and 2008. And this study packs a double wallop for today’s high school seniors. The Pew study notes that the period of 2007 and 2008 marks the beginning of the freefall economic recession. And a significant increase in first-time freshman enrollment. What accounted for this change?
The study also cites changes in the demo-graphics of the United States – an increase among minorities and the age demographics of 18 to 24 years old, which will mean more com-petition for admissions.
The economic downturn is encouraging more and more high school seniors, who see their employment prospects as grim, to commit to the pursuit of higher education – to either wait out the economic storm or improve their skills to make them more competitive. Currently, the overall increase in first-time freshman enrollment is 6 percent. Most of the increase comes from Hispanic enrollees at 15 percent. Black first-time freshmen have regis-tered an increase of 8 percent, and Asian-American first-time freshmen have risen by 6 percent. White first-time freshmen have increased as well, but only by 3 percent. The additional 144,000 first-time freshmen in 2008 that make up the 6 percent overall increase bring the raw number of freshmen up to 2.6 million enrolled in more than 6,000 colleges, trade schools and universities.
According to an executive summation of the study’s findings by Richard Fry, “the first year of the recession was a time when young Hispanics, in particular, were completing high school at record rates. According to Census Bureau sur-veys, the Hispanic high school completion rate reached an all-time high in October 2008 at 70 percent. This was up 2.5 percentage points over October 2007 – a larger increase than that of any other racial or ethnic group.”
The report highlights the plight of today’s high school seniors who are facing the prospect of ballooning college classes or an anemic job market. Pew reports that the high school gradu-ating class in 2008 was 3.3 million and is esti-mated by the National Center for Education Statistics to be the largest class ever recorded. Pew also notes that 68 percent of the students who completed high school that year enrolled in college, trade school or universities that fall. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that 70 percent of high school graduates in 2009 also entered college that same year.
Arguably, the rise in enrollment and gradua-tion trend appears to be continuing at least for the foreseeable future. The increase in full-time freshman enrollment was not limited or favored by one gender. Participation by both men and women increased by 6 percent. But minority stu-dents drove the enrollment boom. Three-fourths of the increase in enrollment was attributable to minority student participation.
If the current trend continues, today’s high school seniors will be less likely than previous generations to be overly selective in their choice of higher education. As Pew examined recent numbers, it concluded that the increase in enrollment was not limited to any specific type of higher education institution. The increase was across the board, from two-year colleges and less to four-year institutions. Private schools benefited from the increase in freshman enroll-ment as much as public institutions. And, for the most part, the size of the institution did not seem to matter to prospective students. Four-year institutions saw a 4 percent spike in fresh-man enrollment, two-year colleges rose 11 per-cent while less-than-two-year schools saw a modest 5 percent increase in freshman enroll-ment. Public and private schools each saw a 6 percent increase in freshman enrollment, for-profit private school enrollment increased 11 percent, and not-for-profit institution enroll-ment rose 2 percent.
In terms of institutional size, only schools with fewer than 1,000 students saw no increase, percentage-wise, in their enrollment. Schools with more than 20,000 students had the biggest spike, 12 percent. Schools with 10,000 to 19,999 students increased their freshman ranks by 5 percent; schools with 5,000 to 9,999, 4 percent; and schools with 1,000 to 4,999 stu-dents, 3 percent.
The conventional wisdom has been that today’s high school senior is more likely to enroll in two-year and less-than-two-year institu-tions rather than at four-year institutions. And that at four-year institutions, White students will dominate enrollment. The enrollment data on recent high school seniors do not bear this out. According to the Pew study, “The recent large increase in minority freshman enrollment was not disproportionately concentrated in the lower tiers of postsecondary education – that is, two-year colleges and less-than-two-year institutions. Total freshman enrollment increased by 144,000 students. White freshman enrollment increased by about 39,000 over all postsecondary institu-tions, so White freshmen accounted for about 27 percent of the freshman increase. The increase in White freshmen did not disproportionately occur at four-year schools. Total freshman enrollment at four-year institutions increased by about 55,000 freshmen, of whom only about 12,000 were White. So White freshmen account-ed for about 23 percent of the freshman growth at four-year colleges and universities. Alternatively, non-Whites accounted for about 73 percent of the freshman growth throughout post-secondary education and about 77 percent of the growth at four-year colleges.”
Today’s high school seniors may be joining a slightly different demographic when they attend school this fall. The other message behind the figures is that the numbers of White freshmen have declined in the period from 2007 and 2008. In 2007, the incoming freshman class was composed of 55 percent White students at less-than-four-year institutions. In 2008, the incom-ing freshman class was composed of 53 percent at these same schools. The same percentage decline of White incoming freshman students was seen at other categories of secondary educa-tion. In 2007, White students made up 64 per-cent of the incoming freshman class at four-year colleges; in 2008, 62 percent.
Although most economic indicators show that the recession is ending, the job market is a lagging indicator, and today’s high school seniors are likely to follow the same pattern as 2008 college freshmen. Pew points out that the “greatly diminished labor market opportunities” coincided with the growth of freshman enroll-ment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for teens ages 16 to 19 climbed to 21 percent in December 2008, up from 17 percent in December 2007, when the recession first began. The picture was bleaker by December 2009 – the highest level since 1948 – a whopping 28 percent.
More and more college-bound high school seniors are minorities, according to the report. Besides the faltering economy, Pew cites the dramatic rise in the number of minority high school completers as another reason for the college enrollment boom. The study states, “Given the lag times in the availability of data, it is difficult to fully disentangle all the causes of the growth in minority freshman enrollment since 2007. For example, one possible explana-tion is that there has been a disproportionate increase in the number and share of minority students among the nation’s high school gradu-ating senior classes.”
The Census Bureau, states Pew, offers a snap-shot of 16- to 24-year-olds who completed high school in 2007 and 2008. “From October 2007 to October 2008, the total number of recent high school completers increased by about 47,000, so Whites accounted for only about 24 percent of the growth in the stock of young high school completers. These data strongly suggest that the minority freshman college enrollment spike that occurred from 2007 to 2008 is closely related to the minority high school completion spike that occurred that same year.” The Census Bureau data show that in 2008 the completion rate for White and Hispanic students 18 to 24 was at a record all-time high of 84.9 percent. From October 2007 to October 2008, Hispanic high school completers increased by 29 percent.
If current trends continue, today’s high school seniors will be more concerned than ever with where they go to school. Pew reports that while the increase in freshman enrollment is evenly distributed across the board when it comes to the type and size of the institution, it is a much different case when it comes to where these institutions are located. A double-digit boom in enrollment seems to be concen-trated in no more than six states and the District of Columbia. California leads the pack with an increase of 21 percent in its 2008 freshman class over 2007. This increase is responsible for 35 percent of the national freshman enrollment increase. The District of Columbia had the second biggest increase at 16 percent. Arizona was third with an increase of 13 percent; then Alabama at 12 percent; and Nevada, Georgia and Alaska each with an 11 percent increase. It is noted that California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico are states with large Hispanic populations.
Enrollment in some states went down in 2008. Oklahoma’s freshman population decreased by 5 percent; Delaware’s, 2 percent; Minnesota and Nebraska, 1 percent. Only New Hampshire’s numbers remained flat.
For high school seniors, going to college in 2011 makes good sense. The unemployment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds in March 2009 was 19 percent; and for 18-to 24-year-old under-graduates, 9 percent. Unemployment nearly dou-bled for both nonenrolled and young undergrad-uates between March 2007 and March 2009.
Another way of looking at it is that the employment rate for 16- to 24-year-old college students was 45 percent in October 2009, down from 50 percent in 2008.
What’s clear from the data in the Pew study is that today’s high school seniors going on to college will have to adapt to an uncertain world. Rather than enter a dismal job market, today’s high school seniors are more and more likely to increase their odds by pursuing higher education.

Putting Theory into Practice

Many economists are talking about what constitutes the “new normal” in the United States. Is it possible that the prevailing wisdom that all students benefit from and should pursue some form of higher education or career training beyond high school is still valid in today’s world? The answer is yes, while keeping the following in mind:
1) Not just any port in a storm – Jobs are a lagging indicator of economic recovery, and while most economists think we are in the midst of a long road to recovery, unemployment will remain high for a period of time. Still, some students and their families might want to enroll in some school – any school –to wait out the recovery, a decision that is a waste of their time and money.
2) Aim high – the motto of NASA really applies to the students in your charge. Two-year schools might be the vehicle of choice for some of your stu-dents, but some students might want to insist on this route even though they are ready and able and focused enough on career goals to apply to four-year schools. Be on the lookout for the “path of least resistance” mindset.