The reasons for this are fairly obvious. People are hesitant to go into massive debt for a college education when the job market is so weak.

Doug Lederman of Inside Higher Ed has the story.

Higher Ed Shrinks

It’s official: Higher education is shrinking, for the first time in at least 15 years.

Total enrollment at American colleges and universities eligible for federal financial aid fell slightly in the fall of 2011 from the year before, according to preliminary data released Tuesday by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

The data from the department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System show that 21,554,004 students were enrolled in fall 2011, down from 21,588,124 in fall 2010. While that drop is smaller than two-tenths of one percent, it is the first such dip since at least 1996, according to officials at NCES.

In many ways the result is not surprising; college enrollments boomed in the late 2000s, as they often do during recessions, as workers lost jobs and sought to retool or opted to continue their educations because they didn’t like their prospects for employment.

So it’s possible that enrollments are leveling off (and shrinking slightly) now because the economy had begun rebounding enough by fall 2011 that some of those who had flocked to higher education during the recession began finding jobs. It’s also possible that college tuition levels — which have continued to rise in recent years, driven in part by cutbacks in state support and other traditional sources of colleges’ revenue — are pricing more students out of higher education.

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Higher Ed Shrinks (Inside Higher Ed|News)