GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Given the soaring costs of college tuition and housing, it makes sense that a higher percentage of the next generation is looking elsewhere to start their career path. But costs aren’t the only factor that has caused enrollment rates to dip.

Was it the pandemic? Is it the current state of the economy? Is student loan debt that big of a deterrent?

All three can be answered with a definitive “yes,” but there are more factors at play. Specific elements of our current economy and a “birth dearth” are also part of those falling rates.

Data from Michigan shows that certain schools have been hit harder and some institutions are valued more than others. Some schools are even defying the odds, maintaining strong enrollment rates in a time of widespread concern.


A study published in May by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that total college enrollment across the United States is down approximately 7% from 2019 to 2023, with the rate slipping faster each year before bouncing back this past spring.

A separate survey conducted by Junior Achievement illustrates why. Approximately 76% of teens believe they can get a “good job” with only a two-year degree or technical certification and only 41% believe a “good job” requires a four-year degree.

While the definition of a “good job” is left open to interpretation, it speaks to the gap between what the next wave of high school graduates believes and how today’s economy operates. The survey shows that financial concerns top the list for scaring students away from college.

“College is the second-largest investment many Americans will make behind owning a home,” Junior Achievement USA President Jack Kosakowski said in a statement. “While a four-year degree isn’t right for everyone, and on-the-job training and certifications are very valuable in many career fields, those who are interested in pursing a degree need information on how to best pay for higher education, and even find ways to reduce costs.”

B. Donta Truss, the vice president for enrollment development and educational outreach at Grand Valley State University, agrees.

“Our data suggests that over a lifetime, you see an increase of about a million dollars of earning potential when you go to college. And for persons that are coming from first-generation homes, or homes that might be considered low income, that is a game changer,” Truss told News 8.


News 8 analyzed the enrollment data from the past 10 years for Michigan’s 12 largest universities and 10 largest community colleges, with a special focus on West Michigan. The data showed some mixed results.

(Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8/Visme)

Enrollment numbers are down at nine of the 12 largest schools. The three that managed to buck the trend: the two largest ones — Michigan State University and University of Michigan — and Michigan Technological University. The University of Michigan has the highest enrollment gap — with attendance up 12.3% over the last 10 years. Enrollment is up 7% at MSU and 5.2% at MTU.

Three schools are on a plateau, with between a 3% and 6% decrease: Oakland University, Wayne State University and GVSU.

Smaller state schools, including Western Michigan University, Ferris State University and Northern Michigan University, have seen more drastic drops — but none worse than Central Michigan University. Data from Mi School Data shows enrollment at CMU is down more than 40% over the last decade — from 22,062 students in the 2012-2013 school year to 13,181 in the 2021-22 school year.

(Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8/Visme)

Of the 10 community colleges observed in the analysis, four show positive enrollment trends, including Grand Rapids Community College. Enrollment rates for community colleges tend to be more volatile — either notably higher enrollment numbers or steeper declines.


In plain numbers, a smaller generation means fewer high school graduates. And a smaller talent pool means fewer students to recruit.

“The population of high school students who graduate and go to college has been declining and is going to even more dramatically decline over the next several years,” CMU University Vice President of Student Recruitment Jennifer DeHaemers told News 8.

She explained that the Midwest has been hit particularly hard by shifting demographics and that has forced the schools to expand their outreach and look to attract students from out of state. Meanwhile, schools from other states are working to pull Michigan’s students away.

“It has been pretty difficult,” DeHaemers admitted. “There are a few (schools) that can really always count on having big classes and just being able to tweak something a little bit and that makes a dramatic impact for them.”

Still, DeHaemers is confident that the trend is starting to break, hinting at undisclosed enrollment data for the upcoming fall. Part of that has to do with how recruiters are connecting with prospective students, shaping their pitch in a more personal way.

“For this generation of students, everything is about them. It’s much more personal. It’s about their experience,” DeHaemers explained. “It is different than students were 20 years ago. (We need) to take a very personalized approach to our conversations with them. … Instead of us standing up and going, here’s everything you need to know about Central, it’s more about what (they) want out of their college experience.”

She continued: “What do you want to study? What are the things you like to do in your down time? You hear all that stuff and then you say, ‘OK, let me tell you how CMU can meet those needs.’”

At Grand Valley State, Truss and his team are playing up the university’s strong brand while showcasing its lower costs.

“We have some success indicators that show GVSU is a great, great investment. And when you compare our costs to some other universities, I think you’ll see that we make a really strong case for being affordable,” Truss said.

He said the recent declines have forced GVSU to analyze its recruiting tactics and see how it could improve. One was to grow closer to Michigan’s largest communities.

“We have to walk alongside Grand Rapids as a whole, Allendale as a whole, other places that we are in like Traverse City, Detroit, Holland. We have to walk alongside those communities and hear from them,” Truss explained. “And as we hear from them, center them in the strategies and initiatives and build new plans to move forward.”

So far, those tactics appear to be working. The incoming class for the Fall 2023 semester is the largest in GVSU history, up 18% from Fall 2022.

“What this is about is an intentional effort to really reach out to our communities, all our communities of color, those that have issues around affording the institution, being sure there’s a place for them, they’re welcome, they feel they belong, and I think critical mass is important to a sense of belonging, but people have to see themselves in the faculty and staff and community they are part of,” GVSU President Philomena Mantella told News 8.


Eric Muller, the dean of student success at GRCC, said the college has been hit by the “birth dearth” and other factors like every other school, but believes most segments of the public still see or are starting to see the value in community colleges.

“The concern about racking up student loan debt is certainly a factor in all of these decisions, which could benefit a school like GRCC for students who maybe aren’t quite sure what they want to do or aren’t committed to a four-year degree, or maybe considering alternative programs, certificate programs,” Muller told News 8.

Muller said community colleges typically see a surge in enrollment when the economy struggles, but certain factors within the economy are tempering enrollment. He believes inflation is to blame.

“Even though we seem low unemployment rates in our region, we know the economy is not fully healthy and that some people are still underemployed or struggling to make ends meet even in full-time job situations,” Muller said. “That tells us to think about how we help them fit college, earning an advanced credential, getting new skills, into a working experience. That’s something that we are getting our arms around and thinking creatively and innovatively about.”

He also highlighted the state’s mission to broaden access to education, including new scholarships and assistance programs to bridge that gap for people who don’t have a college degree or professional training.

“The state of Michigan is making considerable investment in higher education and taking away some of those barriers,” Muller said. “One example here in West Michigan is the Promise Zone — a collaboration among a lot of philanthropy and leadership to create economic resources to help students who graduate from Grand Rapids Public Schools to have access to free tuition and fees at GRCC. And then the Michigan Reconnect program, targeting those who are 25 and older without a degree with additional last-dollar scholarships and grants to access higher education.”

He continued: “Just recently, the launch of the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, targeting Michigan high school graduates from 2023 and moving forward, providing similar resources with tuition help.”