A quick look at the enrollment statistics from the past five years will show a decline in the number of students at Willamette. This trend is not limited to WU. Enrollment rates at nearly all liberal arts colleges across the country are low and continuing to drop. The causes of these trends are varied and often intertwined, but it seems that the liberal arts sector is suffering as a whole.
One of the main causes of dropping enrollment rates is a decreased number of high school graduates. According to Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the number of high school graduates has plateaued at around 3.47 million starting in 2013. Projections show tat in the decade between 2013 and 2023 the nation will produce fewer graduates than the amount when the plateau began in 2011.
With fewer students, there is now more supply than there is demand. Jeremy Bogan, WU’s Vice President and Dean of Admissions, said that across the country, colleges are fighting for applications.
“Schools are fighting for the same pool of high achieving students,” Bogan said. “Given the competitive nature of education as is, schools are pushing to increase their applicant pool. Even elite schools are showing some concern, which is concerning to a school like WU. Everyone is feeling the pressure to enroll strong students, but it is so unpredictable.”
In addition to there being a fewer high school graduates, those who do graduate are less likely to move across the country to go to college. As stated by the Washington Post, the number of high school graduates in the Northeast and the Midwest are lower and continuing to decline, which presents a significant issue due to the high density of post-secondary education in those areas.
WU has felt this trend. Bogan said that the University of California (UC) system of colleges has been working to keep California students in the state.
“At one point, half of our incoming class was from California, but within a three-year span it has dropped to around 37 percent and then 30 percent,” Bogan said. “The UCs are just working harder to keep those students in state.”
Bogan also said that WU is trying to attract students from more tertiary markets, such as the Southeast and the Midwest.
Due to these trends, many liberal arts colleges are failing to meet their enrollment and tuition goals. A survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education of both private and public colleges asked questions about enrollment and tuition goals. In 2017, only 35 percent of private colleges met both their tuition and enrollment goals. In the same survey year, 43 percent of private colleges missed both goals.
Some schools are doing more than just missing their goals. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point recently announced that it is shutting down majors such as history, English, art and philosophy. According to The Hechinger Report, the liberal arts colleges St. Gregory’s University in Oklahoma, Mount Ida College and Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts and Trinity Lutheran in Washington have all shut their doors.
These closed institutions do not help with the public’s perception of liberal arts as a whole. Bogan sees people misunderstanding the term ‘liberal arts,’ which, leads to some misconceptions.
“The term is very loose,” Bogan said. “People hear the word ‘liberal’ and act surprised when the institution itself is conservative. Or they hear ‘arts’ and imagine a lot of starving artists or baristas.”
When people think of liberal arts colleges, they often think only of degrees in the humanities. This misconception about liberal arts leads many to reconsider choosing a liberal arts college over a public university. This may come from fear of not finding a steady job after graduation. In actuality, graduates with degrees in humanities earn around $50,000, which is nearly the same as graduates holding degrees in both social and life sciences, according to a study performed by the American Academy of Arts and Science.
Regardless of these statistics, many liberal arts colleges still struggle with declining enrollment.