Amid rising costs and questions about higher education, fewer young people are going to college, and that’s bad for all of us.

Four years after a global pandemic was officially declared in March 2020, we’re still experiencing COVID-19 fatigue in higher education. Fewer high school seniors have been choosing college since the pandemic, Inside Higher Ed reported. The next few months will determine whether that rate improves for the coming school year.

Education equals success: Jamie Merisotis talks about the importance of higher education.

Here’s why the upcoming high school commencement season matters: The college enrollment rate of recent high school graduates was 70% in 2016. The past two years, it’s been at 62%.

Yes, there are good education and training opportunities besides college—and students are seizing them. In fact, when Lumina Foundation counted high-quality certificates and industry certifications along with college degrees, the percentage of Americans with these valuable credentials has increased substantially since 2009.

That’s the often-untold story of higher education: Millions more people are getting the education they need for good jobs. Unfortunately, doing better isn’t good enough. Here are three reasons why we need even more people with college credentials:

  • So they can earn a living. Within the next 10 years, more than two-thirds of good jobs—those that offer decent pay and benefits—will require at least some college. As a recent report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce put it, “Postsecondary education is no longer just the preferred pathway to middle-class jobs—it is, increasingly, the only pathway.”
  • America needs talent. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says its members are facing unprecedented challenges in filling jobs. “We have 5 million job openings in the U.S., but only 6.5 million unemployed workers,” the Chamber said in a recent release on America’s labor shortage. “If every unemployed person in the country found a job, we would still have nearly 3 million open jobs.”
  • We’re competing globally. The United States ranks fifth among OECD countries in the percentage of the population with post-high school degrees. However, among the top 10 countries, the U.S. ranked second from the bottom in growth between 2010 and 2021.
America Needs Talent: Jamie Merisotis talks about the demand for skilled people to fill today’s jobs.

We all suffer when fewer students pursue education and training past high school. And while a bachelor’s degree isn’t the right decision for everyone, students who are able to pursue it can reap a substantial payoff in lifetime earnings.

There are arguments about this, like a recent New York Times op-ed that highlighted some of the inaccurate portrayals of college as a breeding ground for liberal indoctrination. Repeated attacks have shaken public support—even as wealthy families continue to send their own children to collect bachelor’s degrees.

To gauge the real public mood, consider Gallup’s polling. Despite declining confidence in higher ed, it shows that nearly three-fourths of all adults still say a college degree is as important or more important than it was 20 years ago.

Many of the nation’s governors have gotten the message, as reflected in this year’s state-of-the-state speeches. FutureEd analyzed 38 of the addresses and found that governors of both parties tended to downplay culture-war controversies and instead focus on substantial investments in education and job training.

“The leaders of 17 states announced plans to expand dual high school-college enrollment, lower the cost of associate degrees and increase scholarship opportunities,” the FutureEd review found.

Increasingly, there’s a sense of urgency in proposals from the states. Remote work and learning during the pandemic helped spur the equivalent of 10 years of technological change in the workplace in less than a year, the National Skills Coalition says. That group found that nearly a third of U.S. workers have few or no digital skills—even though nearly 40% hold jobs requiring at least moderate computer usage.

Of all the problems in education—and there are many—the biggest ones aren’t those being cited by critics of attending college. Judging from the states’ urgent efforts to grow their supply of talent, the biggest problem with education is this: We don’t have enough of it.

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