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Opinion We need more people to go to college

Students holding their graduation hats. (iStock)
5 min

It’s become somewhat unfashionable to say this, but: We actually need more people going to, and ultimately graduating from, college.

Enrollment in higher education is plummeting, and K-12 students are falling behind on key skills needed to succeed in college and later in life. The issue is broader than dismal new reading and math scores for youths. These trends threaten our future workforce and, ultimately, the U.S. economy.

New preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that college enrollment has nosedived in recent years. From fall 2019 (the last full semester pre-pandemic) through fall 2022, undergraduate enrollment declined more than 7 percent; for freshmen alone, it tanked more than 10 percent.

Graduate enrollment is up a bit over this period, about 2 percent. But when it comes to quickly moving Americans into the middle class, trends in undergraduate enrollment (especially for associate’s degrees) arguably matter more.

Worryingly, the biggest declines in enrollment the past few years have been in these programs. More detailed spring semester data show that community college enrollment dropped nearly 17 percent from 2020 to 2022.

What’s happening? Usually when the economy is bad, higher education does well, and vice versa. Enrollment last peaked in 2010, for instance, in the wake of the financial crisis. When job opportunities are scarce, people seek shelter in the higher-education system, where they can upgrade their skills and hopefully make themselves more marketable. In the pandemic recession, though, people avoided college even though unemployment was sky-high — presumably because the traditional college experience became less attractive while schools were largely remote.

As the country began reopening and hiring like mad, higher education still didn’t look terribly enticing. Nominal wages rose sharply in jobs that didn’t require much formal education (retail, restaurants, hotels). For many, the calculation appears to have been: Why return to the classroom, given other options?

Some people have cheered these trends. For a long time on the right, and more recently on the left, it has become increasingly popular to claim that college is a scam. Schools take students for suckers, critics say, and usually leave them with debt they’ll never be able to repay.

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It is true that some people, particularly those who don’t complete their degrees, struggle with loans they will never pay back. Worse, some institutions knowingly recruit students into programs that don’t pay off or that have abysmally low completion rates. We can all cheer if those schools lose students. Personally, I think the government should stop subsidizing low-performing institutions with federal grants and loans, so that potential students get a clearer signal to stay away.

But for the typical student, at the typical school, college does pay off.

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, schools that primarily offer associate’s degrees provide a median return of $141,000 after a decade, and $723,000 over 40 years. Among those that primarily offer bachelor’s degrees, the return is lower in the short run, because tuition expenses are higher, but greater over the long term: $864,000 over 40 years.

Beyond the individual benefits that accrue to degree holders, the U.S. economy needs more workers with postsecondary educations.

Not any and all educations, of course. Whatever the non-monetary benefits of attending, say, art school, degrees from such programs are not in high demand from employers. On the other hand, a lot of solid middle-class jobs — nurses, teachers, dental hygienists, paralegals, even wind-turbine service technicians — require at least some postsecondary education and training, and they have strong expected employment growth. Many higher-paying jobs in STEM fields typically require a postgraduate degree.

Given the wave of retirements in many of these occupations, and longer-term declines in birthrates, the country needs to start refilling the pipeline. Soon. Instead, enrollment in health profession programs has fallen in recent years. Same for education, engineering, and math and statistics.

Some might argue that if colleges want to attract more students, they should cut their prices. Many already have. Tuition rates at public institutions have declined in the past decade, especially when adjusted for inflation and grant aid (i.e., the typical net price instead of the “sticker” price), according to data released Monday by the College Board. And since 2009-2010, first-time full-time students at public two-year colleges have, on average, been receiving enough grant aid to fully cover their tuition and fees.

Net costs might still need to come down a lot more. Meanwhile, K-12 education has a lot of catching up to do so today’s children can eventually make it to college. Standardized testing data released Monday showed reading and math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders have plunged since the pandemic began, down to levels not seen in two decades.

This is a failure of massive proportion that political and educational leaders have not yet reckoned with. Whether we acknowledge these challenges or not, we’ll all feel the economic consequences soon enough.