Clarion University in Pennsylvania, now part of PennWest. Its student body has dwindled by nearly half since 2009. Credit... Ross Mantle for The New York Times
For decades, institutions of higher education provided steady, well-paid jobs in small towns where the industrial base was waning. But the tide of young people finishing high school is now also starting to recede, creating a stark new reality for colleges and universities — and the communities that grew up around them.
As Americans have fewer children and a diminishing share of young adults pursue a degree, the once-burgeoning market for college slots has kicked into reverse. Although undergraduate enrollment stabilized somewhat in 2022, it’s still down about 7.6 percent since 2019.
“It looks like the future is declining numbers of young people likely to attend college, even in growing areas like the Mountain West,” said Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College in Minnesota who studies the demand for postsecondary education. “We’ll start to have some tough stories.”