The flip side of the declining college enrollment trend
The media has been filled with reports of students, almost a million people, who have gone missing during the pandemic. Virtually every article quotes experts expressing concern and dismay.
“A steep and persistent decline in the number of Americans going to college…could worsen American society, even if economic rivals like China dramatically increase college enrollment,” Jon Marcus wrote in the Washington Post.
“It’s a crisis, and I don’t think it’s widely recognized yet,” Jason Lane, dean of the University of Miami’s College of Education, told Marcus. “Society is going to be less healthy,” he continued. “It will be less successful economically. It will be harder to find people for the jobs of tomorrow, and there will be less tax revenue because there won’t be as many people in good paying jobs.
Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community College System, added, “We have a million adults in this country who have fallen out of the middle class path. This is the real title.
But these falling sky arguments, intuitive as they are, are altogether too pessimistic. In fact, we should view these enrollment trends as encouraging, for three reasons. First, there’s a good chance that the young men and women who are making the decision not to go to college right now are doing what’s in their own best interests, rather than making a mistake they’ll end up regretting. . Second, these trends may indicate that the culture of education in the United States is changing for the better, including that “college for all” fever is breaking. And third, if these trends continue, they will force the institution of higher learning, and especially community colleges, to make long overdue changes that will benefit students and taxpayers.
Let’s start with the most important question, which is whether these young people’s decisions are smart or misguided. Yes, it’s true that college-educated workers make more money on average than their peers without a degree. There are also many correlations between higher education and positive life outcomes, from higher marriage rates to lower divorce rates, better health, and more.
But it is essential to note that these benefits usually accrue only to people who get degrees. We call it the “College Salary Bonus”, but we really should call it the “College Completion Bonus”. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of “going to college but dropping out without a grad bonus,” and that’s an extremely important distinction.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter so much if most young people who went to college had graduated. But in America today, that is not happening. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the six-year completion rate for any degree or certificate is currently 62.2%. This means that 37.8% of students drop out without a diploma in their name. Considering that before the pandemic, between 65 and 70 percent of high school graduates went straight to college, that’s a lot of kids going to graduate school at the old college but trying to leave with nothing. other than debts and regrets. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that equates to about 900,000 young adults leaving college without a degree or certificate…every year.
And why is that? Overwhelmingly, the evidence indicates that most students don’t complete college because they weren’t prepared to succeed in the first place. They lacked the reading, writing, and/or math skills to do college-level academic work, and they likely also struggled with other related skills and attributes, such as knowing how to take notes or study. for a test, or the perseverance needed to read a book that, frankly, is not at all interesting.
In short, a lot of young people don’t do well in college because they aren’t very good students in an academic setting, they didn’t do very well in school, and they don’t don’t like it that much. Which may make us wonder why we encouraged them to go to college in the first place.
So here’s the question: Are the nearly one million students who aren’t enrolling in college today the same one million students who probably wouldn’t have graduated anyway? If so, we should celebrate that they are choosing to do something else with their time and money.
Especially in a booming labor market, choosing to work means they are contributing to our society and their families, and almost surely gaining skills in the real world. After all, a classroom isn’t the only place to learn how to do new things. The workplace can also be a great place for “post-secondary education”.
There is no doubt that some students who leave college would have done well there and may one day regret not graduating. But one good thing about the American education system is that it allows for second, third, and fourth chances. It’s never too late to go back to school, and those committed to education will surely find a way to make it happen.
Hence the second positive development, which is the attitude of our society towards the college. In recent years, as American Compass has demonstrated, increasing college attendance and completion rates has become something of a obsession for many within the education system and beyond. These impulses are understandable, given the potential of education to raise incomes and reduce inequality, and given our concerns about stagnating upward mobility. But there is no doubt that he went too far. The message many Americans were getting was that college was not just a ticket for the middle class, but the only ticket. And moreover, they were told that the only people who deserve full respect in our society, our economy and our democracy are those who hold university degrees.
This is clearly one of the contributing factors to the populist backlash of the past decade, culminating in the election of Donald Trump, a man who once declared his love for “the uneducated”.
Fortunately, and partly because of these events, even cultural elites have begun to recognize that the university is not the be-all and end-all and that we should celebrate the dignity of work, including work that does not does not require a fancy sheet of paper.
If young people today get the message that college is just one of many options (and recent polls indicate that they are), we should celebrate. This may be a culture war with an end in sight.
Third, these trends could push the higher education system to change. There is no doubt that the dramatic decline in enrollment is causing difficulties for higher education institutions, especially community colleges, where most students have disappeared. But, frankly, these institutions had it all planned out. These are the very places that for years have gladly accepted tuition checks and Pell grants from students, only to watch them fail classes and walk away. And the main reason is that they were admitting students who were not well prepared to succeed in the first place.
When for-profit colleges engaged in this type of behavior, people on the left were outraged, calling for them to be closed and broken up. But because community colleges hide behind their so-called “open access mission,” everyone looks the other way.
We hope that in the aftermath of the pandemic and associated drop in enrollment, community colleges could finally be honest with students about their chances of success, as well as the value their education will add to career prospects.
Maybe they’ll stop admitting students who lack basic reading, writing, and math skills, or who have demonstrated during their high school years that they just don’t like school. and they’re not very good at it.
The next time you see a news story about the dismal decline in college enrollment, don’t feel the need to get yourself a box of Kleenex. The higher education industry might like to see crocodile tears, but there’s reason to believe that, during a very dark time, these declining college enrollment trends might actually have a one-liner. silver.
Michael J. Petrilli is President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and Editor-in-Chief of Education Next.
This article originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog. First published by American Compass.