Japan’s plummeting university enrollment forecasts what could be ahead for the U.S.

The main building of International Christian University in Tokyo.
The main building of International Christian University in Tokyo.
(Tomohiro Ohsumi / For The Hetchinger Report)

The campus of International Christian University was an oasis of quiet in the final week of the winter term, with a handful of undergraduates studying beneath the newly sprouting plum trees that bloom a few weeks before Japan’s familiar cherry blossoms.

The colors of nature are abundant in this nation in the spring. But after decades of a falling birthrate, it has far too few of another important resource: college students like these.

The number of 18-year-olds here has dropped by nearly half in just three decades, from more than 2 million in 1990 to 1.1 million now. It’s projected to further decline to 880,000 by 2040, according to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.


That’s taken a dramatic toll on colleges and universities, with severe consequences for society and economic growth — a situation now also being faced by the United States, where the number of 18-year-olds has begun to drop in some states and soon will fall nationwide.

What’s happening in Japan can offer “clues and implications” for U.S. policymakers and employers and for American universities and colleges already beginning to contend with their own steep drops in enrollment, said Yushi Inaba, a senior associate professor of management at International Christian University, or ICU, who has studied the phenomenon.

The most significant of those implications, based on the Japanese experience: a weakening of economic competitiveness at a time when international rivals such as China are increasing the proportions of their populations with degrees.

Yushi Inaba poses for a portrait in a sunny spot, leaning against a yellow-brick wall.
Yushi Inaba, a senior associate professor of management at International Christian University in Tokyo who has studied the phenomnon, says steep drops in enrollment at Japanese universities can offer “clues and implications” for U.S. policymakers and employers.
(Tomohiro Ohsumi / For the Hetchinger Report)

“Policymakers and industry leaders are really facing a sense of crisis,” said Akiyoshi Yonezawa, professor and vice director of the International Strategy Office at Tohoku University, who has studied the economic ramifications of the decline in Japan of university-age people.

The onset in the 1990s of shoushikoureika, or the aging of Japan’s population, coincided with the start of a recession here that the Japanese call “the lost 30 years.

To help drive growth, some businesses have been moving operations abroad and recruiting university-educated foreign workers, another study by Yonezawa found.


That’s not only because of the population decline; it’s also a result of Japanese universities significantly lowering their standards to fill seats. Where the average proportion of applicants accepted in 1991 was 6 in 10, Japanese universities today take more than 9 out of 10, the education ministry says.

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“It’s easier to enter, easier to graduate,” said Yonezawa. “There are doubts that students really get the necessary skills and knowledge.”

Even with declining selectivity, more than 40% of private universities here aren’t filling their government-allocated enrollment quotas.

After a decades-long head start, Japan is also something of a laboratory for solutions to the problem of falling numbers of university students — though the results so far suggest that there are limits to how much can be done.

Japan’s population of 126 million is projected to shrink by more than a quarter in the next 40 years, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Crowds of people in Tokyo's Shibuya neighborhood.
Crowds of people in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood. As Japan’s population ages, young people are abandoning rural areas for cities, worsening an urban-rural divide.
(Jon Marcus / For the Hechinger Report)

While the numbers in the United States aren’t as dire, they are also declining.

The U.S. birthrate — the number of live births per 1,000 women — has been falling steadily, the National Center for Health Statistics reports. The total number of births declined in nine of the 10 years of the 2010s and dropped even more sharply in 2020, before inching up by 1% in 2021, according to provisional estimates.

This is projected to worsen an already unprecedented slide in college and university enrollment, which fell by more than 11%, or 2.4 million students, from 2010 through this year. There will be a 10% drop in the number of high school graduates from 2026 to 2037, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Other forecasts put the coming decline in the number of 18-year-olds at more than 15%.

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The existing enrollment decline has already affected American colleges and universities in ways that are eerily similar to what Japanese universities have been experiencing, including by triggering closings and mergers — especially of small regional institutions.

At least 11 universities in Japan shut down from 2000 to 2020, and there were 29 mergers, compared to only three in the 50 years before that, research by Inaba found. Most vulnerable have been small private universities in rural areas with low rankings based on selectivity and graduates’ job success.

“There are definitely too many universities” for the shrinking number of students, said Inaba.

This has worsened a divide in Japan that’s also widening in the United States: between rural areas and cities. Young people in Japan are abandoning rural places in droves in favor of big cities such as Tokyo. Because of this migration, “you will have fewer workers with university degrees [in rural areas] while the urban population is becoming larger,” Yonezawa said.


The exodus of university-educated people has so reduced the number of workers with degrees in rural Japan that some rural prefectures have stepped in and taken over failing universities to keep them open.

A student cycles through the campus of International Christian University near trees in full pink blossom
A student bicycles through the campus of International Christian University in Tokyo on March 3.
(Tomohiro Ohsumi / For The Hetchinger Report)

In the United States, too, fewer people living in rural areas than urban ones have higher educations — 21%, compared to 35% in cities, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a gap that the Federal Reserve reports has tripled since 1970.

Rather than shoring up the opportunities available to rural students, however, and maintaining a supply of local graduates, many rural universities in the U.S. have been making huge cuts to the number of programs and majors they offer.

There’s been a particular toll in Japan on junior colleges. Just like American community colleges, to which they’re roughly equivalent, Japanese junior colleges have borne the bulk of the enrollment decline; 267 of them closed or merged between 1996 and 2018, out of 598.

Many students in Japan who once would have gone to junior college are choosing instead to enroll at four-year universities, helping to fend off further enrollment declines there. Also, while the number of 18-year-olds is falling, the proportion pursuing higher education has increased to 81%.

That’s much higher than the 62% of American high school graduates who the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports go directly to college. And, rather than going up as it has in Japan, the ratio of U.S. high school graduates heading straight to college has been going down, from a high of 70% in 2016.


Japanese universities have now reached an inflection point, said Robert Eskildsen, vice president for academic affairs at ICU. The proportion of 18-year-olds who go to college likely can’t go higher, and there aren’t many prospects left to steal away from junior colleges.

“What’s going to happen next is that the universities are going to start feeling this pain,” Eskildsen said.

A nondenominational institution built on the former grounds of a manufacturer of aircraft for the military, ICU remains among the country’s most selective universities. It teaches in both Japanese and English, attracting not only Japanese students who want to work in jobs increasingly requiring competence in English, but also the children of Japanese nationals who have been living abroad and need to improve their Japanese.

Finding niches like those — teaching in English, or adding subjects such as animation, marketing and international management — is another way some Japanese universities are contending with their shrinking market, said Inaba.

Robert Eskildsen, the vice president for academic affairs at ICU, poses for a photograph leaning against a large window
Robert Eskildsen, vice president for academic affairs at ICU, says that after trying multiple strategies to shore up enrollment fueled by Japan’s declining population of 18-year-olds, “universities are going to start feeling this pain.”
(Tomohiro Ohsumi / For the Hetchinger Report)

The universities have also expanded once small-scale partnerships with high schools to create a dedicated pipeline of prospective students who get preference in admission without having to take university entrance exams.


Other efforts to close the enrollment gap have met with less success. It’s hard to attract international students to Japan, for instance, because of the language difficulty and competition from other countries.

There are warning signs about international students for U.S. universities, too. Even before COVID, the number coming to the United States was flattening out, according to the Institute of International Education. And while it rebounded slightly last year after plummeting during the pandemic, there are now concerns about the diminishing flow of students from the most important sending nation: China.

Immigration, which could help boost the number of students in college, is also almost nonexistent in Japan, and way down in the United States, too, according to the Census Bureau.

Both countries are about to share an unwelcome reality, Eskildsen said.

Japan’s universities have so far maintained their enrollment “by reducing their competitiveness and by squeezing junior colleges out of business. But those strategies are close to their limits.” he said.

Now, Eskildsen said, “enrollments are about to start a long decline.”

This article was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.