Growing up in Charlotte, N.C., Rebecca Horoschak always knew she would go to college. She wanted it, her parents encouraged it, and her high school expected it.
“The assumption is that you know more and you’re a better person if you go to college,” said Horoschak, who now studies psychology at Southern Methodist University.
Horoschak is one of over 20 million pursuing higher education in the United States this fall. College enrollment is expected to rise this year higher than it has ever been, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
The NCES reports that the number of students in higher education has increased from 16.9 million in 2003 to a projected 21.8 million this fall. That is an increase of 4.6 million students or 27 percent in the last decade.
The increase in enrollment is evident at Texas universities. Baylor University saw a 12 percent leap in enrollment. The university currently has 15,616 students, whereas only 13,937 students matriculated in 2003, according to Baylor Registrar Jonathon Helm.
The NCES suggests that an increase in the college-age American population might be the root to the higher education boom. But college registrars and administrators suggest there are other factors at play.
Louise Lonabocker, registrar at Boston College, explains the economic turmoil of the last decade was partially responsible for the enrollment increase.
“When the economy slides, students enroll in college,” said Lonabocker.
Another reason is simply the perception of that you need a college degree to succeed today.
“Greater rates of enrollment undoubtedly stem from perceptions of the benefits and value of a college education to contend with the real world we face now and in the future,” said Harold Stanley, SMU associate provost.
Baylor’s Helm says more high school students are expected to pursue college education now than ever before.
“Many students and their families see college as the opportunity for upward mobility, and in many ways a degree has replaced the high school diploma as an entry-level credential,” Helm said.
It was that perception that higher education brings a bright future that drove Horoschak to apply to college.
“You kind of have to get into college and go,” the SMU junior said. “It’s more of a social norm now than it was 50 years ago.”
But while the trend seems to be that more students are going to college nationwide, enrollment has remained the same at SMU. In fact, enrollment has increased by only about 2 percent since 2003, according to data from the enrollment services webpage.
“The interesting thing is that more people are going to college, but not to schools like SMU,” said Stephanie Dupaul, associate provost at SMU.
Expansion is not always feasible for universities, explains Lonabocker.
“At BC, we cap our undergraduate enrollment at 9,000 to 9,100 because of agreements with the neighboring community and number of beds available in our residence halls,” Lonabocker said.
Plus, growth is simply not occurring at huge rates in the traditional college market, according to Dupaul. The big increases are in community colleges and for-profit schools.
“We’re starting to see a decline in the traditional college age group, so there are fewer prospective students out there who fit the traditional model,” Dupaul said.
“You have to look at the increases sector by sector,” University of Denver Registrar Dennis Becker said.
According to the NCES, the number of students attending public or private two-year colleges has gone up by 25 percent since 2003.
Not only are students choosing to attend different types of schools, but also the students themselves are different.
“We’re seeing more first generation and minority students graduating from high school, so the demographics of the pool are shifting,” Dupaul said.
Elizabeth Smith, director of admission at University of Dallas, has noticed an increase in inquiries from young veterans.
Older students are also matriculating in increased numbers at higher education institutions.