College Enrollment Is Declining: Is it relevant?
Earlier this week, the Public Affairs Research Council reported new Southern Regional Education Board data showing college enrollment is decreasing nationwide and in Louisiana. Experts believe Louisiana will experience further declines over the next several years. The stated reasons are a drop in U.S. birthrates and continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, some continue to question whether it’s also indicative of a larger problem – people no longer valuing a college degree.
For several years, business leaders and economists have questioned whether a bachelor’s degree is as necessary now as it once was, and one might expect the recent declines in college enrollment to be concentrated in four-year universities. But Louisiana’s four-year institutions have seen enrollment remain relatively stable since 2012, although their numbers have declined by about 7,300 students since 2020. Enrollment at the state’s two-year colleges, however, has dropped by over 21,000 students since 2012, and that’s alarming.
An editorial in the Ouachita Citizen suggested, “Perhaps young people are opting – or will opt –to bypass enrolling in a college or university because they do not believe a college degree will properly prepare them to enter the workforce.” They went on to say that, “fewer young people are buying what higher education is selling.” Moreover, they urged state officials to make higher education relevant again by focusing on preparing students to earn a living.
Research has shown that those who pursue continued education beyond high school earn more than those who do not, and the difference in earnings is substantial. The influencers telling young people today that a high school diploma is enough, or even worse, that fame and fortune can be easily achieved without a high school diploma by becoming an internet sensation, are wrong. They’re spreading a dangerous message.
It’s true that more and more jobs are no longer requiring a bachelor’s degree or even an associate’s degree. In fact, just this week, the Harvard Business Review chastised employers for “unnecessary degree requirements” that “hurt workers…and deprive companies of talent while yielding little to no benefit.” But what employers do need and require are skills. The question is: where can students learn, practice, and master the desired skills that will enable them to earn a living wage?
Colleges and universities have to be those places, and they need to do a better job communicating that and delivering on that promise. Let’s be honest: There are a number of useless degrees that do not prepare people for the workforce, and are setting them up for failure. Universities must do a better job of guiding students to a field of study that meets current workforce demands.
Employers need to step up as well. They need to partner with high schools and colleges and allow students to participate in real internships, apprenticeships, and other forms of work-based learning. At the same time, high schools must stop telling kids that everyone has to pursue a bachelor’s degree and that four years of college will guarantee a great career and a stable income. College, by itself, does not guarantee a career. The reality is that graduating in a field of study—whether it be a certificate program, a two-year associate, or a four-year university—that tangibly fills a workforce need is the path to career stability.
The Hechinger Report just updated a 2018 story on postsecondary education and training to reflect the three years of the pandemic and sharp declines in college enrollment. It reported that “the march to bachelor’s degrees continues…even though that premium appears to be softening.” Inflation-adjusted median earnings for bachelor’s degree holders are lower now than they were a decade ago. Those who are continuing to go to college are going “without a plan, without a career in mind, because the mindset in high school is just, ‘Go to college.’”
The report noted that, nationwide, nearly three out of 10 high school grads who go to four-year public universities haven’t earned degrees within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Yet high-paying jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled. For example, according to the Associated General Contractors of America nearly 90 percent of construction companies nationwide are having trouble finding qualified workers. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that some 30 million jobs in the U.S. that pay an average of $55,000 per year don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
It’s not that these jobs require no education or training; most require certificates, certifications, or associate degrees. In other words, education beyond the high school curriculum remains essential.
To the extent that college enrollment may be dropping for reasons other than population declines, parents, education leaders, and employers must respond by using better messaging about the types of education and training experiences that lead to great careers and by opening more doors for students to acquire the skills that will set them up for a lifetime of success.
Policymakers can also support this work, ensuring that ample opportunities exist in high schools, increasing student access to and prioritizing funding for workforce-relevant programming, making it easier for employers and schools to partner, and ensuring publicly-funded education and training programs lead to positive student outcomes. Taking these steps can help to mitigate declines, but more importantly, increase opportunity for thousands of Louisianans.
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