Will the halls of higher education in the United States echo with fewer footsteps in the 1980s? The number of 18-year-olds begins falling this year, and that has been expected to trigger substantial declines sometime this decade in enrollment at the nation's colleges and universities.
However, early indications are that enrollments for the 1980-81 school year may equal or exceed 1979-80. And a recent study by the American Council on Education, a nonprofit association, takes exception with the widely held view that enrollments will inevitably decrease sharply for the decade as a whole.
The study outlines a number of strategies for increasing the enrollment of adult men and women, minorities, low-income youths, and foreign students. An influx of these students, it claims, could "easily" result in only a nominal decrease or even a small increase in the total US student population in the 1980 s. These new students would offset the projected enrollment decline among the traditional 18-to-24-year-old population, the study asserts.
It is a controversial conclusion. Fred Crossland of the Ford Foundation reflects the counterview when he says expecting stable enrollments is "hoping for the best, but not planning for what is most likely."
Mr. Crossland forecasts a 15 to 18 percent decline in the college student population from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, and asserts that higher enrollment of nontraditional, older students can at best offset one-third of the decline in 18-year-olds.
For its part, the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities projects a steep 15 to 26 percent drop in enrollments nationally this decade.
For the 1980-81 school year, however, there is little dispute that the enrollment picture looks bright. A major contributor is the national economic recession, which is expected to result in more students from the ranks of the unemployed.
"Education is always countercyclical. When people are out of jobs, they see school as a way to upgrade their skills," says Judith Spich, a research economist with the American Council on Education. She notes that during the 1973-75 economic downturn enrollment at community colleges jumped 10 percent.
Regardless of the state of the economy, older students already are signing up for college classes in increasing numbers. A report published last month by the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities shows that between 1969 and 1979 the number of graduate, professional, nondegree, and part-time students increased 41 percent at private colleges and universities in the US. That compares with an 11 percent rise in undergraduate enrollment at those institutions.
While projections for enrollment this fall vary, many foresee an increase. The Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics is forecasting 11.6 million undergraduate and graduate students this year, compared with 11.5 million last year.
A national survey conducted in June by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that applications for admission to freshman classes at colleges and universities were higher at four out of five institutions. "If actual enrollment this fall follows the trends indicated in applications and deposits received, the total number of students on American campuses could reach another record high," a summary of the survey states.
The long-term enrollment picture is likely to be one of contrast between various regions of the country, say experts on enrollment patterns. Dr. Virginia Fadil, executive director of the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities, expects enrollment declines to be most pronounced in the Northeast and Midwest, where, in her view, there are an excess number of colleges compared to the population.
In the West and Southwest, however, she sees potential growth in enrollment as schools profit from the continuing migration of people to those areas.