The percentage of students choosing to enroll in college from high school has steadily declined since the end of the recession in 2009, sparking concerns about demographic changes in the national student population.

On April 22, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report on college enrollment that found that the proportion of students from the high school class of 2013 was lower than the previous year, continuing a trend of decline from a 2009 peak.

According to the press release from the BLS, 65.9 percent of 2013 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities in October 2013.

That number was down from 66.2 percent in 2012, and showed a significant decline from the all-time peak of 70.1 percent in 2009.

The recovery from the financial crisis from 2007 to 2009 is one of the primary driving forces behind this recent shift of choosing employment over college, according to Nora Gordon, associate professor of public policy at the McCourt School of Public Policy.

“If it’s a recession, and if you’re not enrolled, you’d be unemployed, so the opportunity cost of your time has gone down, and your likelihood of enrolling has gone up,” Gordon said. “That explains why you would really see, in an economic recovery, the likelihood of finding employment with just your high school diploma is going up, so the opportunity cost of your time has gone down.”

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Charles Deacon said it would be unlikely, however, that most applicants to Georgetown would be faced with a decision between university enrollment and employment. Although Georgetown saw a 2.6 percent drop in applications and a 1.4 percent decline in yield rate for the Class of 2018, the applicant pool has remained relatively consistent.

“I think what this [statistic] would reflect is the bottom of the applicant pool, affecting people who are maybe in a more difficult financial decision, wondering whether they might have difficulty affording the cost of college if they have an opportunity for a job,” Deacon said. “We don’t see … that particular statistic as affecting schools at the high end of the applicant pool.”

Tamara Jayasundera, research professor and senior economist for Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, agreed, expressing concern that those who really could benefit from the added earnings of college were often the ones choosing not to enroll.

“Over the lifetime, a four-year graduate worker, on average, earns $2.3 million compared to the $1.3 million earned by a worker with a high school diploma. Thus, it is troubling that young adults from poor and disadvantaged households are unable to afford the high price tag of college tuition [and] are opting out of a college education,” Jayasundera wrote in an email.

Though Gordon agreed, pointing to declines at two-year colleges as the key indicator driving the BLS statistics, she hypothesized that students considering Georgetown also face a challenging decision as a result of the recession and the subsequent recovery.

“It’s people who are on that margin. It’s such a big and segmented market. I don’t think any of the students at Georgetown were deciding, ‘Should I go to Georgetown, or should I get a job?’ They’re thinking, ‘Should I go to Georgetown or my flagship state university that’s giving me a scholarship?’ Other people are on the margin between two-year and four-year college. Other people are on the margin between two-year college and working full time,” she said.

The administration thus appears to face the challenge of reaching out to students who may not apply because of increasing tuition costs or the fear of not graduating.

“Places that are selective are, by definition, at capacity: They’re rejecting applicants. Their number of enrolled students is not going to change; the composition of those students might change,” Gordon said. “They might have a harder time recruiting … students who don’t apply because they’re deterred by the sticker price.”

Deacon recognized this issue and pointed to joint efforts carried out by top universities specifically aimed to offset this problem and encourage on-the-fence students to apply.

“Many, many students who have the right credentials don’t even try getting into college. The problem is, there’s no way of specifically identifying them. … Our best effort is done through the joint recruitment program, with four other major universities [Stanford University, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, and Duke University], which literally goes to all corners of the country,” Deacon said.

Deacon also highlighted efforts such as the Georgetown Scholarship Program, which offers resources and networks to students regardless of socioeconomic status, as crucial to maintaining high graduation rates, which, in turn, would incentivize students to attend Georgetown.

“If you can get into Georgetown, the predicted outcome is that you can graduate at a 95 percent rate, and that changes the whole dynamic, in terms of your opportunity. If you’re going to a school where it’s predicted that only 30 percent of you will graduate, you’ll have second thoughts about whether that decision is right for you,” he said.

Jayasundera stressed the need to keep tuition costs manageable for students, as well, especially with increased media attention to the issue and state schools becoming less affordable for students.

“Though Georgetown and other selective private universities are not affected by the declining enrollment, mounting pressure can lead them to have to take steps to moderate their tuition increases. … As state budgets thinned during the recession, many states cut higher education support dramatically, and more of the burden of paying for college transferred from the state to the student,” she said.

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