We’ve gotten used to the warning signs about higher education—the flashing dashboard lights, as it were, of falling enrollment, rising costs, battered budgets, and rattled public confidence.
If there weren’t any bad news, it sometimes seems, there would be no news at all. But we’re actually heading in the right direction in some ways, though like every good recovery we’ll need to acknowledge the problems first.
Start with a big one: the coming “enrollment cliff.”
Demographers and economists have warned for more than a decade that, because of a decline in birth rates following the Great Recession of 2008, the number of traditional college-age students will drop dramatically. That steep drop is expected to begin in 2025 and continue for a decade.
Already, enrollment is down 9 percent from 2017, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, and many schools are in trouble: The National Center for Education Statistics reports that more than 500 colleges and universities closed from 2015-2020.
Another concern threatens higher ed’s efforts to redress historical wrongs: The U.S. Supreme Court will rule this year on two cases involving race-conscious admissions policies, and it is possible, even likely, that the court will set aside nearly 50 years of affirmative-action precedents.
At the same time, the deepening worldwide labor shortage will make it harder and more costly for higher education to find and afford qualified people to staff classrooms and offices. Already, we’re seeing this at community colleges, which face their own version of the “great resignation.”
Again, the force of this pressure will be felt most acutely by those schools already imperiled—and by many students. As wages rise to $20 per hour for entry-level jobs, many students and their parents will weigh the prospect of going into debt to get a college education against the prospect of making more than $40,000 a year without a degree.
Higher ed’s troubles often hit the hardest on those who need education’s benefit the most, including Black and brown Americans. Black college enrollment fell 17 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared with a 9 percent drop for white undergraduate enrollment.
We’re finding several factors to blame for the tumbling college numbers, but the one that concerns me the most is the growing skepticism about the value of college. Young people, especially, are pessimistic about the value of degrees. Two-thirds of respondents in a survey by Public Agenda said they think colleges are “stuck in the past” and do not meet the needs of today’s students. A 20-year-old woman who responded to the survey noted that degrees don’t always lead to jobs.
“I think college is overrated and overpriced,” said the woman, who attended college but left before getting her degree.
Perception, so often, is reality, and we need to tell the higher ed story more effectively, even as colleges and universities work hard to hold the line on costs, build better counseling and other supports for students.
College isn’t for everyone, some will say. That’s true, of course, but some form of post-high school learning or training is essential for jobs that pay a living wage and provide health care and other benefits. Our country needs these jobs to grow, yet millions of positions are unfilled because there aren’t educated people available.
The “college isn’t needed” refrain is dangerously short-sighted. A person with a high-school education is unlikely to see much growth in their earnings, while the person with a college degree will earn nearly twice as much on average. As the Georgetown Center on Education and Workforce reports, a college degree is worth $2.8 million over a lifetime.
Closing the door to higher education and the promise of a better life for citizens who already struggle is a strategy for continued strife in America.
But while this is a crisis long in the making, there are bright spots to encourage the optimists among us. Many schools—the University of Texas system among them—are rebooting their programs and systems to help students complete their degrees and provide better paths to good jobs.
And we know that degrees have value for employers as well—when it’s clear what graduates have learned. Unless businesses want to greatly expand their human resources departments to do much more testing and training, and assume significant extra costs in the process, they need some way to determine what skills job applicants have.
If colleges and universities can adapt enough to certify competencies in skills, they can establish themselves as essential partners in the national search for talent. The need clearly is there. In the affirmative-action suits the Supreme Court is considering, industry after industry has filed amicus briefs contending the same thing: They count on colleges and universities to identify and train workers in an economic environment that is evolving at a dizzying rate.
America’s colleges and universities long have said that they inspire a love of learning that lasts a lifetime. The needs of the coming age, though, call for schools to deepen and expand that commitment.
They must become, not just inspirations, but vehicles for continuous learning. They must be a place where all Americans gain a first foothold on the American dream. They also must be the means by which displaced and tenuous workers can retrain themselves and reinvigorate their careers and lives.
I’m optimistic that higher ed is getting the message about costs and student supports. But we need to document that progress and do a better job of answering the question, “What is college for?” The lack of a clear answer in the minds of many people explains why there is some pessimism about the value of degrees—despite their enormous value in an increasingly complex world.
This article was originally published in Forbes.