After College: The coming cultural collapse of American higher education


Why does anyone go to college? The most popular answer given by American college freshmen from 1991 to 2019 was, “To be able to get a better job.” The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, which conducted an annual survey of full-time students at some 200 four-year colleges, routinely found 75 to 85 percent gave that answer, though many also said, “To make more money.” The next most popular answer during those decades was, “To learn more about things that interest me.” Trailing these answers but still widely endorsed was the ambition, “To gain a general education and appreciation of ideas.”

I don’t have access to more recent results but I suspect the students are still saying much the same. Those answers, however, merely scratch the surface. The real reasons, then and now, that students go to college are hidden in a mixture of social expectations, family dynamics, ambitions, emotional longing, and inertia, covered with a veneer of socially acceptable rationalizations.

That mixture is powerful enough to move more than 60 percent of high-school graduates to enroll in college instead of entering the workforce, joining the military, apprenticing for a trade, or dubious options such as idling at home, wandering around, online gaming, or a life of crime.

Going to college still looks to most Americans as a better choice than going to war or a life of dissolution, but recent evidence suggests that students completing high school are beginning to rethink the idea that college is necessarily the best path. “More High-School Grads Forgo College in Hot Labor Market” declares the Wall Street Journal. There’s that, but American higher education—and perhaps education throughout the Anglophone world—is in the midst of a transformation that goes beyond the vagaries of the job market.

By the numbers

Before turning to that transformation, let’s set the scene. In pre-pandemic 2019, 66 percent of American high-school grads (totaling 2.1 million) enrolled in college: 44 percent in four-year colleges and 22 percent in two-year colleges. The pandemic took a chunk out of this. In 2020, 62.7 percent of high-school grads enrolled in college. That decline (66 percent to 62.7 percent) might not seem dramatic but it panicked many colleges and universities.

Then things got worse by not getting better. College enrollment experts expected a quick post-pandemic rebound. Instead, students dropped into a new groove. Only 61.8 percent of 2021 and 62 percent of 2022 high-school grads enrolled in college. The national press registered the tremor. The New York Times reported, “College Enrollment Drops, Even as the Pandemic’s Effects Ebb.” The biggest drop in college enrollment was concentrated in two-year colleges.

Higher Ed Dive, which just released the spring 2023 numbers, offers the supposedly consoling news that “enrollment losses are stabilizing.” That’s the soft way of saying the fire is growing hotter but not as fast as yesterday. In one area, however, enrollments are rising: “shorter-term undergraduate credential” programs, where 2023 enrollments increased by 4.8 percent. That means certificate programs narrowly focused on niche job skills.


Categories: Education

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