🎓 Alma Later!
Why college enrollment keeps declining every year
Over the past two decades small colleges have started blinking off the map, with more closures coming. Their fall is going to change society forever. Here’s how:
U.S. College enrollment hit its peak in 2009
It has been declining ever since.
College is too expensive.
I went to undergrad ~14 years ago at a public university in California. I paid $6000 in tuition for the year. Students at that same university now pay $14,000 a year, more than double the price.
“But inflation!” I hear you say (no, not “butt inflation”🙄).
Even accounting for inflation, the cost of college has nearly tripled since the 1960s - not just tuition, but room and board as well. Meanwhile wages have not kept up since 1978 (see this piece I wrote, in part, on wages recently).
What about online learning? Isn’t that cheaper? Yes, but only marginally so. Many of my students weren’t too happy during the pandemic because a number of colleges charge almost as much for online courses as they do for in-person ones. Additionally, the true cost of an online education is difficult to determine. For instance, in some cases, the cost of purchasing and maintaining laptops, mics, headsets and webcams can offset the tuition savings of an online education.
COVID-19 resulted in dropouts and reassessments
College enrollment was declining for a decade even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 made things worse. Between 2020-21 enrollment fell 10% (1.5 million students) and accounted for more than half of the overall drop in enrollment that has taken place since 2009.
The pandemic also accelerated labor trends inhospitable to a college degree by:
Encouraging people to reassess their time: the pandemic led many folks to pursue careers as entrepreneurs, creators or craftspersons - professions where a college degree isn’t necessarily required.
Accelerating adoption of jobs that don’t require you to be present in-person and can thus be automated or assisted by artificial intelligence. These kinds of jobs are less likely to require a graduate education.
Speeding up a cultural shift driven by a dramatic cycle of economic uncertainty: an accumulation of savings (driven by pandemic relief) followed by sudden and dramatic inflation. Many young people growing up in this see-sawing economic environment are now reconsidering the value of a college degree that can cost upwards of $300,000.
It’s no wonder then that even when the pandemic subsided, college enrollment continued to drop by another 4.4 percentage points in 2022.
There are less college-aged people in America
Each successive American generation tends to have fewer and fewer children. This means that with every passing year, our population as a whole gets older, with a smaller percentage of the population falling within the traditional college-age cohort.
And things are about to get worse.
The only thing sustaining America’s population growth is immigration - without that influx of people, we are a shrinking society.
Within the next five years the number of seniors graduating from high school will see a sudden and dramatic decline - the rolling demographic result of the Great Recession of 2008 which resulted in a lot fewer people marrying or having children. This drop in the birth rate has remained permanent to this day.
Folks in higher education know this is coming. They have a name for it: the “enrollment cliff.” Larger, more prestigious schools will weather this storm well, but many smaller universities and community colleges will be forced to shut down due to lack to tuition revenue.
Not everyone is affected equally by declining enrollment
Smaller schools and community colleges serve a very different population: immigrants, people of color, older students, or those from low-income backgrounds … in other words, communities of people who need college the most to achieve economic stability and success. As these schools shut down, so will a pathway to economic mobility for many of these communities.
Men will also be affected unequally.
One of the most profound demographic changes of the last half-century has been the steady and inevitable decline of college-enrolled men. In fact, the withdrawal of men from education is reflected across the entire educational system, with fewer men every year graduating from high school and fewer men obtaining advanced professional degrees or Ph.Ds.
Men without college degrees drift through society, making less money over time. They are disconnected from the people around them. They are prone to violence at much higher rates than college educated men, far more likely to be incarcerated and commit suicide at higher rates.
A vibrant and growing higher education system would have reduced these trends. Instead the shrinking of accessible small universities and community colleges is closing an important door for young men, driving them further into cycles of poverty and mental illness and deepening America’s crisis of masculinity.
So what can we do?
Follow the “best coast” model: The news isn’t all terrible. Despite the overall demographic decline, demand for national four-year universities on the west coast will increase by more than 7.5 percent between now and the mid-2030s. This is due, in part, to population growth in the west, but also because west coast schools tend to embrace innovative learning modalities quickly. For instance, Arizona State University has not seen a decline in enrollment because it was one of the early adopters of online learning and has emerged as a leader in workforce education and flexible learning that makes it easier for students to continue their education.
Build a “college isn’t for everyone” society: Learning is being democratized. You can learn how to code almost as well as a full-time student on your own (half of Silicon Valley companies were started by people who did). Student debt shouldn’t necessarily be the price we pay for learning. Encouraging a society where folks can obtain gainful employment without spending thousands is possible with the right policy and advocacy tools.
Build a comprehensive, safe and respectful immigration system: Immigration, undocumented or otherwise, is one of the few trends driving a dynamic and growing society, with a large percentage of young people interested in going to college. A safe and reliable immigration system is a prerequisite for a growing, dynamic society that values education.
🎧 Up Next on the UnfairNation Podcast
Next week: My interview with Amy McGrath!
✈️ Catch Me If You Can
Phoenix, AZ | Feb 13-14
Lisbon, Portugal | March 22-30
My colleagues at Arizona State University’s Learning Enterprise are looking to hire in the education and workforce development space. Drop me a note if you’re interested.
Friend and advisor Grande Lum of the Rebuild Congress Iniative is looking for a consultant to help reduce polarization in politics.
Coming Soon: 📡 Signal Boost! I’ll be expanding this opportunities section into something more comprehensive and hopefully more valuable to all of you.
📅 Reading & Watching
Extremely Hardcore, on The Verge.
The first boxing club for women just opened up in Gaza this week. Its already hosting 40 athletes who train at its full-size boxing ring, with state of the art training equipment and posters of boxing heroes on the walls, defying expectations in a region where boxing has traditionally been a sport for men.
I’m not crazy about reality but its the only place to get a decent meal.