How higher education lost its shine
Americans are rejecting college in record numbers, but the reasons may not be what you think
As the football and girls’ soccer teams sweated through summer practice on the athletics fields at LaVergne High School, a small group of adult advisers inside shared tales of their own ordeals.
They spoke of high school graduates who had balked at writing essays or filling out the forms required to apply to college. Of parents suspicious about divulging what they earn so that their kids could get financial aid. Of students sure there was easy money to be made on TikTok or YouTube, or in jobs at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.
Part of a cadre of advisers deployed by the state to prod more Tennessee high school graduates into college, the women in this conference room have suddenly found their jobs to be much harder.
The proportion of high school graduates in Tennessee who are going directly to college is plummeting. Last year, it was less than 53 percent. That’s down 11 percentage points since 2017.
“He starts telling me, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ ” one adviser, Portia Cook, was recounting to her colleagues from the state program, called Advise TN, about a student at the top of his class who had changed his mind about continuing his education. “ ‘You’re talking about four more years of school? No.’
“Similar conversations took place nationwide this summer as worried state officials grappled with a dramatic and continuing slide in the number of Americans willing to invest the money and the time it takes to go to college. It’s a trend that experts say is likely to diminish people’s quality of life and the country’s economic competitiveness.
“With the exception of wartime, the United States has never been through a period of declining educational attainment like this,” said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University’s Miller College of Business.
There has been a significant and steady drop nationwide in the proportion of high school graduates enrolling in college in the fall after they finish high school — from a high of 70 percent in 2016 to 63 percent in 2020, the most recent year for which the figure is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Many observers have suggested three principal explanations for the falloff: the COVID-19 pandemic, a dip in the number of Americans under 18 and a strong labor market sucking young people straight into the workforce.
But while the pandemic made things worse, the enrollment downturn took hold well before it started; there were already two and a half million fewer students at colleges and universities by the time that COVID set in than there were in 2012. Another million and a half have disappeared since then.
Demographics alone cannot explain the scale of this drop. And statistics belie the claim that recent high school graduates are getting jobs instead of going to college; workforce participation for 16- to 24-year-olds is actually lower than it was before COVID hit, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, reports.
Myriad focus groups and public opinion surveys point to other reasons for the dramatic downward trend. These include widespread and fast-growing skepticism about the value of a degree, impatience with the time it takes to get one and costs that have finally exceeded many people’s ability or willingness to pay.
“The expectations of going to college from their parents, it died down — that if you don’t go to college, you’re a bum,” Ever Balladares said about why many of his fellow graduates of LaVergne High, southeast of Nashville, don’t plan to continue their educations, as he does. “They don’t think that anymore.”
Tennessee is not the only place experiencing this trend. While not all states measure college-going in the same way or have data for the same years, some have also seen declines much higher than the national average.
The proportion of high school graduates going to college in Indiana dropped to 53 percent in 2020, down by 12 percentage points from five years earlier — a pace Commissioner for Higher Education Chris Lowery has called “alarming.” In West Virginia, 46 percent of 2021 high school graduates went on to college the following fall, 10 percentage points below that state’s high of 56 percent in 2010.
Fifty-four percent of 2021 high school grads in Michigan went straight to college, down 11 percentage points from 2016. In Arizona, 46 percent of high school graduates in 2020 went to college the following fall, a drop from more than 55 percent in 2017. In Alabama, recent high school graduates’ college-going in 2020 fell to 54 percent, down 11 percentage points since 2014; and in Idaho, to 39 percent, down 11 percentage points since 2017.
Americans are increasingly dubious about the need to go to college. Fewer than one in three adults now say a degree is worth the cost, according to a survey by the Strada Education Network.
“That conversation has come up more frequently — ‘Is it worth it?’ ” said Jennifer Kline, a counselor at Festus High School in Festus, Missouri, a state where the proportion of high school graduates going straight to college is down by 6 percentage points since 2017, to 61 percent. “I just have more and more parents who are saying, ‘Nope. You’re not going to do that. You’re not going to a four-year college.’ ”
Her students’ parents “just don’t value education the way they did in the past,” said Amanda DeBord, an Advise TN adviser in a rural part of Tennessee. “I feel like that’s been slipping for a few years.”
On top of all that is growing dissatisfaction among recent university and college graduates with the value of the education they received.
More than four in 10 bachelor’s degree holders under 45 did not agree that the benefits of their educations exceeded the costs, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve. Only a quarter of recent grads in another survey, by the educational publishing and technology company Cengage, said that, if they could do it again, they’d take the same educational path.
That adds up to a lot of bad reviews passed down to younger siblings and classmates, who consider family and friends the most trustworthy sources about whether and where to go to college, according to a survey by Vox Global, for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, that also combed through social media.
“If you don’t believe your degree was worth the cost and you tell everybody that, that has a huge impact,” said Stephanie Marken, a partner at the Gallup polling organization in its education division.
Meanwhile, months of discussion about whether the Biden administration will forgive all or some student loan debt has had an unintended consequence: It has reminded prospective learners just how much people before them had to borrow to pay for college. So has the fact that many of their parents are still paying back their student loans.
“The conversation about student debt they’re hearing constantly is playing into their perception,” said Samantha Gutter, chief access and outreach officer at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which surveyed high school seniors about their college-going plans.
“These numbers have been around for quite some time,” said Kim Cook, chief executive officer of the National College Attainment Network. “But right now, it’s just a world where this is more headline news.”
Other headlines include the ones about resurgent scams and scandals that have forced taxpayers to assume the debt of students whose colleges and universities misled them. The U.S. Department of Education in June discharged $5.8 billion worth of federal loans borrowed by students of the defunct for-profit Corinthian Colleges, for example. Cases such as that have “really put a sour taste in the mouths of some people,” Hicks said.
Between 2015 and 2019, Americans’ faith in higher education dropped more than their confidence in any other institution measured by the Gallup polling organization — an extraordinary erosion of trust, considering that list includes the presidency, Congress, big business and the criminal justice system.
“There’s anti-elitism, anti-institutionalism, a perception that cost is out of control,” said Marken. “We’re also having a hangover from a lot of bad actors in higher ed who misrepresented their product.”
These problems, now coming home to roost, were evident for years, but colleges and universities in general have done little to address them.
They stick to a policy of advertising prices few consumers pay but that discourage many from applying. They bury students in red tape that is especially confounding for the increasing number of would-be applicants whose parents never went to college. And they often fail to make clear connections between academic disciplines and careers or keep up with the demands of the fast-moving labor market.
“We have not focused enough on outcomes,” said Ruth Watkins, former president of the University of Utah and now president of Strada Impact, which does research into what drives student behavior. “We haven’t been clear. We can do so much better.”
A degree does, in fact, still pay off. Workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 67 percent more than people with only high school diplomas, according to the BLS. More than half of “good jobs” — meaning those with salaries of at least $35,000 for workers under age 45 and $45,000 for people between 45 and 64 — call for bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates.
When her students tell her that they plan to forgo college, said Cook of Advise TN — she calls them “my babies” and “my sweethearts” — “My pushback is, ‘You can go to work at Volkswagen, but what happens five or six years from now when you want to move up? You’re not going to be able to.’ ”
Yet since the start of the pandemic, the proportion of 14- to 18-year-olds who think education is necessary beyond high school has dropped from 60 percent to 45 percent, the ECMC Group found. More than half of teenagers who are planning on some further education say they are open to something other than a four-year degree.
Even high school graduates who plan to go to college admit to doubts.
“My whole life has been sports, but at the same time it’s still, ‘Is college really for me?’ ” said Dillon Phillips, who played basketball at LaVergne High and hopes to go pro but will start at a community college to “give me time to prepare” for the requirements of a four-year university.
The pandemic only deepened the fears of students who were already struggling with self-confidence and skeptical about college, said Thea Cole, who also counsels students for Advise TN. “Their GPAs have suffered. So some of them are, ‘I don’t know if I can get in,’ or, ‘It will be too hard.’ ” Cook is more blunt: “My kids have a shorter fuse. When things start getting complicated, they’re done.”
It’s not only recent high school graduates who are turning their backs on higher education. The number of students over 24 who are going for the first time or returning to college has also steadily declined, by a total of 12 percent in the five years between the spring of 2017 and the just-ended spring semester, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
COVID-19 accelerated that slide, too. Fewer than four in 10 people with an associate degree or less believe that further education will help them land a stable job in an economic slump — down from half who said so before the pandemic — a Strada survey found.
“I blame higher ed for that,” said Marken. “One reason is the cost is out of control, but another is how cost is presented,” with institutions listing prices much higher than what almost any students actually pay after discounts and financial aid are accounted for.
“Most students don’t know that, and most parents who didn’t pursue higher education themselves don’t know that,” Marken said. “They’re going to count themselves out before they even apply.”
People aren’t entirely imagining that college costs are up, of course. Even when financial aid is counted, the inflation-adjusted average cost of a four-year college education has more than doubled since 1974. The inflation-adjusted cost of a two-year degree is up by 66 percent.
New financial worries and inflation are aggravating the affordability problem. Many students who are enrolled say they’re having trouble covering tuition — especially those who attend community colleges, which have seen the most dramatic declines in enrollment. More than a third of those students say their financial situations are worse than before COVID, the Center for Community College Student Engagement found.
Community colleges and regional four-year universities “have traditionally served the populations that have faced the greatest challenges: managing child care, transportation, food insecurity. And in this moment, it’s just one thing too many to try to manage postsecondary education or training,” Watkins said.
Trying to get at the reasons so many people have stopped going to college, some states have conducted focus groups and surveys, revealing that the complexity of getting a higher education is to blame for at least some of the antipathy toward following through with it.
In Indiana, 70 percent of residents said they found trying to understand the state’s financial aid options “overwhelming.” In Tennessee, many high school students said they didn’t think they were eligible for state financial aid for which they probably actually qualified.
“We need to make it simpler for people. We see in black and white that the majority of people think it’s too complicated,” said Charlee Beasor, associate commissioner for marketing and communications at the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.
Other explanations include a lack of child care, which 38 percent of adults cite as an important reason that they’re not in college, along with the need to care for other family members, according to a Gallup survey.
Among the other findings of the Vox study for the Indiana Commission on Higher Education: Some Americans these days “balk at the idea of being told what to do by out-of-touch elites who don’t know them,” such as whether they should go to college.
“And they especially don’t want to be told their life isn’t good enough,” said Beasor — “ ‘How dare you tell me what I need to do to make my life better?’ ”
The growing disparities in college-going could widen the fissures already polarizing American society, Hicks said.
“Places like Los Angeles or D.C. or Chicago, they’re going to continue to draw a lot of college graduates,” he said. “For places that have a smaller share of college graduates, you’re going to have a more uncertain economic climate and lower wages.”
The effects are already unavoidable, said Cook, of the National College Attainment Network.
“Even if in a best-case scenario, we address this and turn it around and enrollment is back up — and that’s a giant if — just the last two years, it’s more than a million students who are not going on to graduate.”
The United States has already fallen from second to 16th since 2000 among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member nations in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees. The countries ahead of the U.S. on that list have increased their bachelor’s degree attainment during that time by an average of 177 percent, an analysis by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education found.
In one state, Massachusetts, a think tank has already projected that lower college completion rates combined with baby boomer retirements and less immigration mean that the number of workers with degrees will fall by 10 percent, or 192,000, by 2030 — much more steeply than previously projected — compared to a 25 percent increase in each of the last four decades. It warned of “serious implications for the state’s economy.”
Even before the pandemic, the nation was facing a shortage of more than nine million college-educated workers over the next decade, affecting nearly every state and costing nearly $1.2 trillion in lost economic output, the center-right American Action Forum estimated.
Economic competitors “could wish nothing better but to see the share of [American] adults who go to college drop by 12 percentage points,” Hicks said. “It is literally cataclysmic.”
This story about college enrollment decline 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.