Universities serving the South Coast are changing curricula and working to draw new students into classrooms in an attempt to offset declining college enrollment — a problem that follows national trends, educators say.
Long term, the changes could squeeze some young adults, whose earnings without a college degree may not keep pace with the current trend of rising rents and real estate costs.
A New Bedford Light review found a variety of trends in the enrollment decline.
- For the 2021 academic year, UMass Dartmouth and Bristol Community College saw a 1.3% decline and a 3% decline from 2020. This year, Bridgewater saw a 14.3% decline from 2019.
- Post-secondary institutions across the United States have seen a 5% drop in undergraduate enrollment between 2009 and 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
- The population of college-age students has been shrinking in many areas of the U.S., especially in the Northeast.
- Administrators at UMass Dartmouth, Bridgewater State University and Bristol Community College hope that increased STEM education, career-focused courses and more certificate programs will help counteract the loss of students, spurred by an enticing job market and a rising cost of living and exacerbated by the pandemic.
Strong job market during pandemic spurs shift
James Anderson, vice-chancellor of enrollment management at UMass Dartmouth, said a surging job market is enticing high school graduates away from a traditional four-year education and into the workforce — though he hopes they will eventually return to college.
“One thing that’s interesting going through COVID, is that we’ve seen a very strong job market — lots of employment opportunities, high base wages, and things like that,” said Anderson. “Students may decide that working was good for a time to gather experience, and future students will see that higher education is really the way to get to top-earning jobs.”
A recent check of the job-hunting site Indeed.com found 938 jobs in the New Bedford area that require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher while 621 jobs require only a high school diploma. A 2021 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that people who earned a bachelor’s degree took home median yearly earnings of $67,860 while people who only received a high school diploma took home $40,612 per year.
“We know that increases in minimum wage and whatnot aren’t keeping up with housing costs,” said Rick Kidder, co-CEO of One SouthCoast Chamber of Commerce. “What we’re starting to see here is that housing costs are rising. And they’re rising in a relatively dramatic fashion.”
According to recent data from Apartments.com, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New Bedford is $1,711 or approximately $20,532 each year — roughly 50% of a high school graduate’s estimated median income, as noted in the 2021 labor study.
Rising costs of living, coupled with familial expectations to start working, may be keeping some high school graduates out of higher education, said Kidder.
“A lot of the folks here have wonderful families who have always had jobs — not necessarily careers,” he said. “And they’re following along in those footsteps, sometimes because they don’t realize that there are alternatives. Sometimes, because there isn’t necessarily the family expectation that they advance past where they themselves work.”
Demographic cliff: Fewer babies 18 years ago mean fewer students today
According to Gregg Meyer, dean of university admissions at Bridgewater, a contributing factor to the decline in college enrollment in the South Coast is a phenomenon known as the “demographic cliff.”
“Basically, what’s happening up here is that there are just less 18-year-old students graduating high school,” said Meyer. “It goes back to 18 or 20 years ago. Families were just having less kids, and now we’re seeing it.”
Many college freshmen who enrolled in the 2021 academic year were born between 1998 and 2004. During this time, Massachusetts saw a drop in birth rates from 13.2 to 12.4 births per 1,000 people, according to data collected by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
Outside of New England, the shifting demographics are having a smaller impact on enrollment, said James Anderson, the vice-chancellor of enrollment management at UMass Dartmouth.
“There’s only a couple of pockets of the country where we’re seeing some population growth, high school enrollment growth, and high school graduate growth. They’re seeing that California is about a net neutral. Texas, and the southeastern United States [are growing],” said Anderson. “So, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have been under pressure for some time.”
Schools shifting away from liberal arts courses
Specific majors and departments at South Coast universities are seeing a decline in liberal arts enrollment while interest shifts to fields that have a more reliable track to the workforce. “This is industry-wide; there have been lower enrollments over the years in what are the traditional liberal arts,” UMD’s Anderson said. “Foreign languages, English, we’ve seen some softness in communications or journalism. Things like that have really been under some pressure.”
UMass Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts is seeing a change as well, with fine arts courses and craft programs are being phased out for design-centered classes. CVPA Dean A. Lawrence Jenkens told New Bedford Light reporter Anastasia E. Lennon: “As much as it would be great to offer those classes in perpetuity, it doesn’t make sense to invest those resources for a very small number of students when there are a larger number of students who aren’t necessarily being given what they need.”
Bridgewater State University, which was founded as a school that specialized in training teachers, is seeing similar declines in its education department, said Gregg Meyer, the dean of university admissions at Bridgewater.
Technical courses and certificate programs rising
Kidder sees a shift to job- and career-based programs and away from the liberal arts as a possible way forward for local colleges and universities.
“There’s a recognition that for a lot of jobs, the college degree is not as important as a certificate in the particular skills that they’re needing,” said Kidder. “So, you’re seeing more and more people actually going for certification and job training in certain areas that will allow them the kind of upward mobility that they would have assumed might have come from a college education.”
Both universities are investing in their STEM programs, targeting students who may be moving away from the liberal arts. UMass Dartmouth will add pre-engineering classes for students who don’t meet the minimum requirements for direct entry to the engineering program and will begin remodeling the college of engineering to create “more effective learning spaces for people to be able to work collaboratively,” said Anderson.
Bridgewater is piloting a new photonics and optical engineering program — the first engineering program at the university — and is making improvements to the health science and athletic training programs.
Bristol Community College invests in offshore wind training
As universities across the South Coast begin a shift to vocational training and STEM education to counter declining enrollment, Bristol Community College hopes to establish itself as a “one-stop-shop” for training and certification in the offshore wind industry.
The National Offshore Wind Institute at Bristol is angling to “[offer] basic and advanced safety and technical training programs to prepare workers for jobs in construction, deployment, operations and maintenance of offshore wind farms,” according to the school’s communications office.
Partnered with Maersk Training, an international group focused on providing training for the offshore wind industry, Bristol is the only South Coast college offering this kind of certification. A program that Bristol says will lead to job opportunities in one of the fastest growing fields in the United States.
Financial aid targets freshmen, transfer students
Along with bolstering their programming, both universities are ramping up individual financial aid to traditional freshman students, as well as students who are transferring from other four-year institutions or community colleges. At UMass Dartmouth, the Higher Education Relief Fund allowed the university to support students affected by COVID-19 with payments ranging from $1,500 to $2,000.
They are also directing funds toward recruitment. “Lower enrollment does start to constrain our resources,” said Anderson. “We’ve got to be very selective in the places that we invest … Our staff and faculty appointments — we have chosen to leave them open for a longer period of time so that we can direct resources towards our first-year students.”
For UMass Dartmouth and Bridgewater, recruitment can mean setting up at high school college fairs, mailing brochures to prospective students, or speaking to classes via Zoom. But both universities also focus on recruiting transfer students from community colleges. In 2021, Bristol Community College sent 233 graduates to UMass Dartmouth and 209 graduates to Bridgewater, according to data kept by the college, a 5.6% and 14.3% decrease respectively from the previous year.
Much like its four-year counterparts, Bristol has seen a decline in enrollment due to the pandemic. However, according to Kate O’Hara, vice-president of student services and enrollment management at the college, students choose Bristol over other schools, due to the low cost of attendance and for the programs it offers.
“We have seen an increased demand for certificate programs over the last two years, and we are currently developing and expanding accelerated certificate programs in high-demand fields, such as health care, solar energy, entrepreneurship and Spanish and English interpreters,” she said.
Although each university and community college offers different programs, all schools stressed the importance of the higher education community on the South Coast.
“It really takes all of us working together,” said Anderson, referring to Bridgewater and Bristol. “Though we are all separate institutions, and we like to see our own enrollments grow, we’re for access and we’re for education as a way to build up the economic engine of the South Coast. Collectively, we all push and we all contribute to students reaching for that next level.”
Sawyer Smook-Pollitt is a New Bedford-based freelance journalist and regular contributor to The New Bedford Light.