College Students Should Stay in School
The insidious effects of the pandemic are weighing heavily on higher education. A story from Elissa Nadworny aired on NPR this morning with some frightening statistics. The story's grim headline tells a sad story all by itself: "More than 1 million fewer students are in college, the lowest enrollment numbers in 50 years."
In addition to citing facts and figures, Ms. Nadworny reached out to affected young people to better understand and highlight their situations. Frankly, it's a sobering story, and more than a little scary. Even so, it's definitely worth a read (or, if you prefer, a listen — there's an audio link at the top of the page).
The Value of Higher Education Is Hard to Overstate
Before I dig into Ms. Nadworny's reportage, I want to revisit a relatively recent story of my own from GoCertify.com. On Oct. 22 last year, I wrote a heartfelt appeal to Congress to preserve President Biden's "community college entitlement" as the House of Representatives worked to finalize his "Build Back Better" legislation.
That portion of the bill would have guaranteed two years of community college to all U.S. citizens following high school. Alas, it didn't make the cut. But I cited a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that showed strong correlation between educational attainment and lifetime income. I just found another such study from the Social Security Administration that makes the same point:
The more (or more advanced) degrees you acquire, the more money you'll make in your lifetime. But there's an economic cost to society, as well: Lower-wage earners pay fewer taxes (as they should) but that means less money to support our society, and its infrastructure and safety nets.
Think about that for a while, and you can't help but conclude — as I have — that "more is better" when it comes to educational attainment for everyone in the United States.
NPR's Findings Could Have Big Implications
In the aggregate, college enrollment has dropped by more than 1 million students since the pandemic began in March 2020. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, which released its Current Term Enrollment Estimates report on Jan. 13, enrollment dropped by 6.6 percent for the fall term. That accounts for about half of the total drop in enrollment since the pandemic began.
According to the study, public four-year institutions took the biggest student count hit (-251,000 students or 3.8 percent), but the steepest percentage decline fell to for-profit 4-year colleges (11.1 percent, or 65,500 students). Community colleges dropped by 3.4 percent (about 162,000 students), but associate degree-seeking students enrolled at four-year schools fell most sharply (-11 percent at public schools, -6.2 percent at private nonprofit schools, and -11.9 percent at for-profit schools).
On the plus side, freshman enrollment stayed essentially flat for the 2021-2022 academic year, after a major drop in 2020 — there was even a modest uptick of 0.4 percent (8,100 students). Thus, the 2021 freshman class came in at about 2,320,000 students across all institutions (a drop of 213,000 students, or 9.2 percent, as compared to the freshman class of 2019.
As I see it, all of these numbers are painful and spell negative economic consequences for those who fail to return to school, and complete their degrees. I can't help but think that those pursuing associate's degrees (either at community colleges, or at four-year schools with two-year degree programs also available) are most at risk.
That's because the first step up from high school makes the biggest lifetime difference in earnings and opportunity — though additional levels do keep working to provide increases in both of those things as well. The NPR story reports a 13 percent decline in community college enrollment since 2019.
The story suggests further that "the phenomenon of students sitting out of college seems to be more widespread," going beyond community colleges to four-year programs and more. It quotes Doug Shapiro of the National Student Clearinghouse as saying, "This could be the beginning of a whole generation of students rethinking the value of college itself."
In response, I must point to those studies cited earlier in this story. It's not the best thing to sit out of college for a while, but it's far worse to not go back and finish a degree, or never to attempt a degree in the first place. But with wages going up, high school graduates are feeling the lure of a steady paycheck and something different from school.
As Shapiro observes "the fear is that they are trading a short-term gain for a long-term loss." He also points out that "the longer they stay away from college � it becomes harder and harder to start thinking about yourself going back into the classroom." Cold, hard inescapable truth, that, for sure.
Word from the Trenches
Ms. Nadworny's research also reveals that those who are the most financially strapped also tend to be those most likely to trade education and its future gains off against immediate, short-term gains from getting right into the workforce. The National Student Clearinghouse has observed, in fact, that students from lower-income secondary schools were less likely to attend college than those from higher-income schools.
Shapiro adds that as a result of the pandemic, "The gap in college access between higher-income and lower-income students grew wider." Declining enrollment at community college provides some evidence that this gap continues to widen. And, like my own story (see link in second paragraph above) Nadworny concludes that "declines in college enrollment have a compounded impact on the economy because there are economic consequences on so many levels: the individual, the community, businesses and society as a whole."
I'm increasingly of the opinion that Congress was wrong to shut down Biden's universal community college initiative. I still believe that anything we can do to encourage and boost post-secondary education — especially of the community college variety — is worth doing.
And, at the same time, all of us should reach out to the young people we know, lay out the numbers, and explain to them that obtaining at least one degree is a lifetime win they can't match easily any other way. Hopefully, it will make a difference, because when they the rising generation wins in this way, the rest of us win, too.