Despite popular belief, the number of students who are going to college, both four-year and two-year, has declined in recent years.

In October 2018, 18.9 million people were enrolled in college in the United States. That was 1.5 million fewer than in 2011, according to recently-released data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey School Enrollment Supplement.

The number of students enrolled in two-year colleges during that same period dipped by 25%, or 1.4 million, to 4.3 million.

Gregg Raisanen, vice president of academic and student affairs at Alexandria Technical and Community College, said enrollment trends there have been similar. One reason the number of college-age students at ATCC has declined, he said, is because the number of high school students in general and in this region has declined.

Over the past decade, the percentage of Alexandria Area High School seniors who have gone on to college has fallen from 83% to 74%, according to the Minnesota Statewide Longitudinal Education Data System.

Almost one-fifth of those attending college in 2019 chose a two-year program, according to Rick Sansted, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in the district. The remaining 26% of AAHS seniors who were not college-bound were either planning on entering the military, the workforce directly or finishing high school, Sansted said.

Part of the work around the high school’s academy model is helping students find out what their passion is and how to follow through on that as a career, he said. Staff at the school do not push for students to go to any kind of college program.

“We’re trying to help them uncover what’s their passion,” Sansted said. “Because in the end, it’s more about what their interests are, not (ours).”

Students may be taking different pathways than their parents or grandparents, because there are different jobs and occupations now than there were back then, he said. “It’s a different economy, it’s a different world for sure.”

And Sansted is correct; the economy is doing well. The unemployment rate is at a record low, which reduces the incentive of people in the 25-40 age range to go back to school, Raisanen said.

“When the economy booms, enrollment declines,” he said. “That’s been a trend that happens at two-year colleges across the country.”

The college has 300 fewer students in the age range of 25-40 enrolled than it had five years ago.

In the fall of 2019 at ATCC, 2,481 students were pursuing a major. Of 1,080 students not in a major, 947 are participating in Postsecondary Enrollment Options. ATCC had 4,051 students seeking credits in fiscal year 2018.

ATCC President Michael Seymour said government funding for public education has decreased from two-thirds to about one-half. The state supports ATCC with financial aid about halfway, and the other half is made up of mostly tuition payments by students and some donations. This has made it difficult for students to afford college.

“The value of college is individualized to find a good-paying job and career, but the appetite for student debt is lost,” Seymour said.

However, all numbers are not going down. The college has seen increases in high school students taking classes at the college, and students of any age taking online classes. In the past two years, the percentage of its student base that comes from within a 50-mile radius has grown 4.3%, to 57.7%.

How ATCC is responding

The administration at Alexandria Technical and Community College consistently shares ideas for how the college can adjust to any changes in enrollment. One way is for colleges to figure out niche areas where students might come from and market to those areas, Seymour said.

Raisanen said college staff foresaw this enrollment trend 10 years ago. Staff tracks enrollment from the 20 high schools that send the most students to ATCC, looks for trends and estimates how it will affect the college.

ATCC, which employs 182 staff members, has adjusted to the decline in enrollment by not replacing staff positions and making adjustments, adding recruiter positions and reallocating resources. An example is hiring instructors to work nights and weekends for those students who enrolled but couldn’t quit their day jobs.

Nationally over the past 15 years, colleges have seen a large decline in the number of white students who attend. That figure has shrunk from 68% to 54%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

At ATCC, the population of students of color is about 8.6%, or about double the number of people of color living in the Alexandria area, Raisanen said.

Seymour said there’s only so much the college has control of, and they focus on what they do control. That includes the historical quality of what the college does, its location and high quality of life.

Raisanen said college staff sells its product, leveraging it while knowing there’s nothing the college can do about demographics or the economy. “We can’t make more students,” Raisanen said. “We’ve been recognized with what we do and our programs have a very strong reputation.”

Administration is also planning on adding more sports teams, which may attract more students. Currently, the only team it has that competes against other colleges is the newly created clay target team.

The college also has intramural teams and is looking to add competitive men’s and women’s golf teams and an e-sports league in the fall.