Does renewed growth in Massachusetts’ higher education mark a turning point or a temporary surge?

The University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst.

The University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By XINYI YANG

For the Gazette

Published: 06-03-2024 4:52 PM

Modified: 06-03-2024 5:48 PM


After a decade of declining enrollment, public higher education in Massachusetts finally saw the first increase in first-year undergraduate enrollment last fall, fueled by a nearly 8% increase in community college admissions.

Meanwhile, at the University of Massachusetts and state university systems, enrollment continued to decline, but at a slower rate, according to data from the state Department of Higher Education.

Given that Massachusetts has witnessed declining birth rates for the past two decades — one of the reasons leading to fewer college-age students, according to Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of education and economics at Boston University — experts are grappling with the question of whether this is a long-term rebound or if economic changes since the Great Recession and COVID-19 pandemic have changed the importance of higher education. They also wonder if increasing government spending is a long-term solution.

A recent report about higher education investments emphasized that there is a shortage of workers with college degrees due to declining birthrates, fewer high school graduates completing their degrees, an increase in retirements and families moving out of Massachusetts. This demographic trend is crucial, because it directly affects the pool of potential new students, which can lead to decreased enrollment in higher education institutions over time.

Around 2010, the state university system started seeing signs of enrollment challenges, according to Vincent Pedone, executive director of Massachusetts State Universities Council of Presidents. Enrollment numbers have been declining since 2014.

Massachusetts ranked 12th in the nation for the share of first-year college students who enrolled in the state where they lived in fall 2016.

“Ninety-five percent of our students came from the commonwealth,” Pedone said. “If we are seeing a decline in our population, it only goes to reason that we could see a decline in our enrollment, and that’s what is happening.

“According to the data, we will not see a stabilization of our population in Massachusetts until 2035,” he added.

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Due to a smaller proportion of its student body hailing from Massachusetts, UMass appeared less affected by the state’s demographic changes. For instance, of the students registered at UMass Amherst in the fall of 2023, only 67.5% were initially from the state, and 9.1% were international students, according to UMass’ first-year students factbook.

Ryan Forsythe, vice president for enrollment management at Worcester State University, said state universities in Massachusetts have only seen very slight decreases in enrollment, which can be attributed to demographic changes. Larger enrollment changes, however, occurred when COVID-19 struck.

“Very tiny variations prior to the pandemic can be attributed to demographic changes but certainly are nothing compared to what happened during 2021,” Forsythe said.

Over the last decade, the U.S. job market has progressively strengthened, except for significant disruption during the pandemic, according to Goodman. Even after the pandemic, the job market has recovered to one of its strongest points historically, characterized by record low unemployment rates.

According to a study on government recovery measures conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, recovery efforts were further bolstered by relief and recovery laws passed in December 2020 and early 2021. Consequently, inflation-adjusted GDP exceeded its pre-recession peak in the first quarter of 2021.

Goodman added that the decision to attend college is influenced by the economic landscape, but a robust job market presents compelling opportunities for immediate employment or for jobs that do not require high academic degrees, making college less attractive for some.

“When the labor market is good for employees, the people will think, ‘Why am I going to spend money to go to college, but there are already so many jobs that I can get?’” Goodman said.

According to Goodman, as the labor market improved dramatically in the 2010s and unemployment rates declined, there was a greater incentive for students to pursue immediate employment.

That prompted Worcester State University to try to reach out to students individually since 2020, according to Forsythe. Faculty and staff volunteered to make phone calls to students to understand their needs, whether it was academic support, financial aid or other issues. This approach aimed to ensure that all students felt connected and supported by the university.

“We love to talk to our students, but you cannot connect with every student every day,” Forsythe said.

Affordability is another factor that discourages students from enrolling in the college.

“It is important to make it accessible, because private schools are not an option for everybody,” said Colin Jones, deputy policy director at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

“In addition to academic support, many of our students need financial support as well,” Forsythe said.

Some smaller private colleges in New England have already faced closures due to difficulties maintaining sufficient enrollment levels, which directly affects their financial viability, according to Goodman. Public university systems, due to their larger size and scale, are less vulnerable to the immediate impacts of reduced enrollment compared to smaller private institutions. However, they are not immune to financial challenges.

“What the state can do is help these institutions offer as simple and clear financial aid as possible,” he said.

The ongoing issues over federal financial aid applications with the U.S. Department of Education happened this year, Goodman said. The efforts to simplify the process have led to technical problems, causing delays and confusion for students seeking financial aid. These challenges highlight the complex dynamics between economic conditions, demographic trends and educational policies that higher education institutions must navigate.

“It might get better in future days, but it clearly demonstrates how important it is to make things simple and transparent for the students,” Goodman said. “Of course, it’s crucial to balance the various roles, the amount of money received in the different school systems, but what I care about is how to help students get a better education.”

Xinyi Yang writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse
Program.