The Coming Higher Education Bubble, Nine Years Later
[guest post by JVW]
Nearly nine years ago my very first post as a guest-blogger for Patterico’s Pontifications, titled “The Coming Higher Education Bubble,” surveyed the current decline in college enrollments coupled with the rising costs to those who choose to attend, and wondered if the system could hold. Though I did acknowledge that concerns about whether a college education was always and everywhere a worthwhile investment go back at least to the early 1970s, I wondered if modern changes in the delivery of education (especially online courses, some of which are free) would accelerate the demise.
Apparently, that is exactly what has happened. On Wednesday, the AP carried this report:
When he looked to the future, Grayson Hart always saw a college degree. He was a good student at a good high school. He wanted to be an actor, or maybe a teacher. Growing up, he believed college was the only route to a good job, stability and a happy life.
The pandemic changed his mind.
A year after high school, Hart is directing a youth theater program in Jackson, Tennessee. He got into every college he applied to but turned them all down. Cost was a big factor, but a year of remote learning also gave him the time and confidence to forge his own path.
Apparently young Mr. Hart is far from the only college refusnik out there. The story continues:
What first looked like a pandemic blip has turned into a crisis. Nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, with declines even after returning to in-person classes, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The slide in the college-going rate since 2018 is the steepest on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Economists say the impact could be dire.
At worst, it could signal a new generation with little faith in the value of a college degree. At minimum, it appears those who passed on college during the pandemic are opting out for good. Predictions that they would enroll after a year or two haven’t borne out.
After citing the ceremonial academic researcher who worries that a drop in college graduates will cause immeasurable harm to the economy, the article starts sketching out details from some youngsters who have decided to forego the higher ed experience. Besides Grayson Hart, we meet Daniel Moody of Tennessee who took a job at a local Ford plant right out of high school and is currently pulling down $24 per hour. Another resident of the Volunteer State is Boone Williams, an “A” student who took advanced courses in high school and considered going into animal science but instead is working as an apprentice plumber and receiving his certification through the union rather than through a community college. For balance, the article introduces us to Boone’s fellow Tennessean Mia Woodward, “who is biracial and transferred high schools to escape racist bullying,” and who reports that her high school guidance counselors never spoke to her about college and that the schools she applied to never responded. She now works as a waitress and hopes to someday attend culinary school. I don’t know whether to divine any intent, but the article focuses on higher education drops specifically in conservative-leaning states: Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Arkansas. One would never know from this article that progressive California has seen a huge drop in higher education enrollments, sparked by a “collapse” among the state’s community colleges, a trend also seen in the Democrat strongholds of New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Minnesota, among others. This clearly is not a red state/blue state issue; it’s a national phenomenon which appears to be here to stay.
And so what?
That is the response from George Leef, writing at National Review Online, who sees the decline in higher education enrollments to be far more of a problem for the higher education cartel than it is for society as a whole:
For 17 years, I’ve been arguing that higher education is oversold in the U.S. — that because of government subsidies, far more people have been enrolling than otherwise would. Many academically disengaged individuals end up in college more for fun than for any desire for learning. If they graduate, they often wind up in jobs that they could have done while still in high school.
[. . .]
College, as Bryan Caplan argues in The Case Against Education, is mainly an expensive signaling device. If fewer students go (and, perhaps as a result, fewer people work in colleges), that releases resources for more productive uses — which benefits our economy and society.
The people who stand the most to lose are the administrators, faculty, and staff at universities who have had an amazing run selling a product whose price continues to rise but whose value is increasingly marginalized. Efforts to goose enrollments through various state government interventions have failed, from New York’s Empire Scholarships to free community college initiatives in states like Oregon. As we’ve argued before with respect to education, blanketing the system with money and access is no guarantee of success.
So I’ll renew the prediction I made back in 2014: there are massive changes coming quickly to the higher education world which are going to have severe impacts upon it. From declining enrollments to unionizing graduate students (since when has unionizing a job created more of those jobs, I ask) to students no longer willing to go deeply in debt for a degree that may not be particularly worthwhile. Colleges and universities had better be ready for some rapid and destructive change or else they will find themselves asking an ever-shrinking pool of potential students to pay more and more for privilege of attending their institutions. That’s not a pathway to success.