College Enrollment Declines Five Years in a Row

College enrollment has fallen for the fifth consecutive year, signaling for many that college at any point is not an automatic choice. New data indicates that overall college enrollments declined 1.4% this fall compared to one year ago, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The for-profit sector suffered the most, dropping 14.5%. Community colleges declined 2.6% and four-year private institutions declined 0.6%. Four-year public institutions did increase, but only by 0.2%.

The data shows that students over age 24 and recent high school graduates account in large part for the overall drop. Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states had the sharpest declines this year.

“The trends of a declining adult student enrollment and the shrinking for-profit sector are now joined by stagnating numbers of new high school graduates,” Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a written statement. “These forces show no sign of slowing and will continue to challenge institutions in their planning.”

In the 2016 State of the Industry report, Counselor determined that education surpassed health care as the leading market in promotional product sales for the second year, accounting for 12% of overall industry sales. However, from year to year, the education market has fluctuated with distributors, increasing from 11.4% in 2013 to 13.6% in 2014, but then declining to 12% last year.

Leo Eisner of HALO Branded Solutions (asi/356000) said that he’s noticed a decline in sales from Syracuse University, one of his main clients. “There have been significant drop-offs in football and basketball attendance, and the university has been more aggressive in promoting special events to change that,” Eisner told Counselor. “But where we used to get the big promotional dollar, we’re now taking orders for smaller stuff like donor recognition.”

Distributors say that promotions through colleges and universities tend to be price-driven because many orders are subject to a bidding process. In addition, a majority of schools require distributors to be licensed through an entity such as the Collegiate Licensing Company.

By contrast, student groups and Greek organizations on campus have no such mandates. They gravitate more toward look and trend with things like apparel and tend to be more flexible in their budgets. “Sororities want cute for apparel and they’re willing to pay for cute, and they’re willing to pay for the brand name,” said Tony Poston, president of College Hill Custom Threads (asi/164578), which works with groups and school departments at over 300 universities. “Fraternities don’t care as much about the fit, feel and brand name.”

Ryan Prowell, director of licensing for Boxercraft (asi/41325), said that in addition to high-quality products, pricing, lower minimums and the ability to replenish items quickly matter to college buyers. “Buying practices have evolved over the years where buyers like to wait and chase business instead of booking everything months in advance,” he said. “Thus it’s important to have vendors that can react quickly and have flexibility with smaller minimums.”