Editor’s Note: Columbia should brace for future enrollment declines

By Ariana Portalatin, Editor-in-Chief

Columbia might be in for more enrollment problems than previously thought if predictions made in a recent report by economists at Carleton College are correct.

According to the report, college enrollments are expected to drop by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decrease by a few percentage points except for elite institutions that might see an increase. The prediction comes from a population decrease stemming from the country’s 2008 financial crisis.

“When the financial crisis hit in 2008, young people viewed that economic uncertainty as a cause for reducing fertility,” Nathan Grawe, professor of Economics at Carleton College, told The Hechinger Report Sept. 10. “The number of kids born from 2008 to 2011 fell precipitously. Fast forward 18 years to 2026, and we see that there are fewer kids reaching college-going age.”

Only seven states were expected to see an enrollment increase: California, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and South Carolina. Illinois was among many states likely to experience the 15 percent decrease.

The predictions have made experts particularly concerned for small private colleges. Although it is likely that colleges in large metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, might not experience the same trend as their states, regional four-year institutions that serve local students are expected to lose more students.

Columbia seems to be one of those in danger of losing more students. According to an Institutional Effectiveness Undergraduate Admissions Report, Illinois was the top state of origin for Columbia applicants, with 1,997 freshman applicants specifically from Chicago out of 3,610 applicants from Illinois.

While the impact of these enrollment decreases can differ with each school, experts agree that closures are likely.

According to an Aug. 29 EducationNext article, small private schools with modest endowments compared to elite colleges are at risk of pricing themselves out of the market from continuous tuition hikes, which Columbia has had for several years.

With fewer tuition dollars coming in, some regional colleges might feel pressure to cut liberal arts courses and expand professional programs that will translate to what students see as leading to better-paying jobs.

While these predictions seem alarming for Columbia, there is hope if the college can reprioritize its focus. The college has turned its attention to bringing in new students, but Grawe stated in The Hechinger Report article that colleges can avoid closure and budget shortfall by retaining current students and reducing dropout rates to retain tuition dollars. An example of this is the University of Southern Maine, which is operating with a larger budget, despite fewer students, to keep students through to graduation.

A bonus for private colleges is what they are more likely to offer students, including smaller classes, more personal attention, mentoring from faculty and a tight-knit academic community. Smaller campuses also make it easier for students to stand out in their communities, according to the EducationNext article. These are practices Columbia already has in place, especially as it works to consolidate its campus by selling buildings, but must continue to survive through these potential enrollment declines.

To be successful, Columbia must hold on to what makes a school such as itself great: students.

The loss of students at Columbia has had an intense impact on the campus community, but if the college can withstand the challenges to keep students from leaving and invite more students in, Columbia can thrive.

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