The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Drop in college enrollment threatens to cause long-term economic, social consequences

Another million adults ‘have stepped off the path to the middle class’

Enrollment at American colleges and universities has continued to decline, with worrying implications for society. People without education credentials beyond a high school diploma earn much less than classmates who get bachelor’s degrees, and are more likely to live in poverty. (Sy Bean/for The Hechinger Report)
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Slower economic growth. Continued labor shortages. Lower life expectancy. Higher levels of divorce. More demand for social services, but less tax revenue to pay for it.

A sharp and persistent decline in the number of Americans going to college — down by nearly a million since the start of the pandemic, according to newly released figures, and by nearly 3 million over the last decade — could alter American society for the worse, even as economic rival nations such as China vastly increase university enrollment, researchers warn.

“It is a crisis, and I don’t think it’s widely recognized yet that it is,” said Jason Lane, dean of Miami University’s College of Education, Health and Society.

The reasons for the drop in enrollment have been widely discussed — declining birthrates, the widespread immediate availability of jobs, greater public skepticism of the need for higher education — but the potential long-term effects of it have gotten less attention.

People without education past high school earn significantly less than those who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, and are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to be employed. They’re more prone to depression, live shorter lives, need more government assistance, pay less in taxes, divorce more frequently, and vote and volunteer less often.

Colleges lost 465,000 students this fall. The continued erosion of enrollment is raising alarm.

With fewer people going to college, “society is going to be less healthy,” Lane said. “It’s going to be less economically successful. It’s going to be harder to find folks to fill the jobs of the future, and there will be lower tax revenues because there won’t be as many people in high-paying jobs. It will be harder for innovation to occur.”

The growing gap in educational attainment could also worsen existing divisions over politics, socioeconomic status, race and national origin, said Adriana Lleras-Muney, an economist at UCLA.

“We’re seeing a lot more people moving into the very unlucky group instead of the lucky group,” said Lleras-Muney. “That will be very bad for them personally. It will start showing up in their health, their likelihood of remaining in marriage — you name it.”

Among those most affected: children from low-income families, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which reports “unprecedented” declines in the number of students from high-poverty or low-income high schools who immediately go on to higher education.

“The gains that we made in reducing class-based and racial inequality are being wiped away,” said Awilda Rodriguez, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education.

Men in particular have disproportionately stopped going to college; undergraduate enrollment of men is down more than 10 percent since the start of the pandemic.

“What does that mean for the modern American family? There are implications here that just go miles and miles and miles,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “We have a million adults in this country that have stepped off the path to the middle class. That’s the real headline.”

Community colleges continue major enrollment decline

High school graduates who don’t go further in their educations earned a median of $24,900 less a year than people with bachelor’s degrees, the College Board calculates.

They are nearly 40 percent more likely to be unemployed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, and nearly four times more likely to be living in poverty, according to the Pew Research Center.

Because they earn less, people whose formal education ends with high school pay 45 percent less in local, state and federal taxes than people with bachelor’s degrees, according to the College Board.

Yet they require greater social services. High school graduates who don’t go on to college are two-and-a-half times more likely than those with bachelor’s degrees to receive Medicaid benefits, four times more likely to get food stamps and four times more likely to need public housing, the College Board finds, while their kids are three times more likely to qualify for free school lunches.

People without college educations also are less likely to vote than people with them, according to the Census Bureau; half as likely to volunteer, the College Board says; and more likely to divorce, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics — almost half of married couples with less education split up, compared with 30 percent who are college graduates.

Various studies have found that people without college educations even die younger than people with them, from 5 to 12 years, depending on the study. In fact, life expectancy has increased since 2010 for people who went to college even as it’s declined for those who didn’t, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and others.

“These life-expectancy gaps are just going to get even larger than they already are,” said Lleras-Muney, who studies the connection between education and health. “We might not see that for a while because the cohorts that are graduating now are not going to start dying in significant numbers for another 40 or 50 years. But we will see people being in worse health.”

Among other health indicators, people with only high school diplomas are nearly four times more likely to smoke than college graduates, according to the College Board, and researchers at the universities of Texas and South Carolina find they have a higher incidence of depression.

All of these things are raising alarm about the broader impact of falling college enrollment on society and the economy.

Fewer college graduates mean not enough workers to fill high-paying jobs being left by fast-retiring baby boomers, for instance.

“There will be fewer jobs that people can get with just a high school diploma, so this will be an issue as more and more jobs require a college degree but fewer and fewer students go to college,” said Jennifer Ma, senior policy research scientist at the College Board.

That means current-day labor shortages and logistics interruptions may be harbingers of things to come, said Lane, of Miami University.

“What we’re seeing right now is hospitals understaffed, supply chain concerns, schools closing because we don’t have enough people to keep them open,” he said. “But what happens when we don’t have enough people studying to be teachers or to be nurses?”

Lower earnings also mean less consumer spending, which translates to slower growth and affects the broader standard of living.

Biden administration urges colleges to use covid relief funds to meet students’ basic needs

America’s college and university enrollment decline is taking place against a backdrop of aggressive investment in higher education by international economic rivals such as China.

The United States has fallen from third to 12th since 2000 among the 38 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in the proportion of its population age 25 to 34 with college degrees, behind Canada, Korea, Russia and others.

If Americans keep choosing not to go to college, “the U.S. will continue its slide,” said Jamil Salmi, a global higher education expert and former higher education coordinator at the World Bank.

Although it’s still well behind the United States in the proportion of its population with degrees, China has boosted its university enrollment sixfold since 2000, to about 45 million, according to World Education Services, a nonprofit that evaluates international education credentials.

One upside, some policymakers said, is that a smaller supply of people with degrees will force employers to accelerate the budding practice of considering job and life experience instead.

“That’s something companies are already becoming much more focused on — what skills does someone have versus what piece of paper do they have,” Sullivan said.

Already, more listings for jobs that pay above the national median wage are accepting applicants with less than bachelor’s degrees, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found.

However, that is more bad news for the sector that’s affected most immediately by the enrollment decline: the $632 billion higher education industry, with many campuses struggling to fill seats.

That could force universities and colleges to lower barriers that prevent prospective students — especially lower-income ones — from getting degrees, Rodriguez said.

“We could be on the precipice of being pushed to thinking about how higher education could be more accessible, more equitable.”

This story about low college enrollment was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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