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.
You go to collage to get educated. To many students today use it as a trade school. At least the wokers are trying to educate. By the way mitch mcconnell fell and hit his head. DU thinks he has the same dementia as bruce willis ;but I need to get this confirmed.asset (ab7077) — 3/9/2023 @ 8:35 pm
USC graduate students also voted to unionize, but since they are a private school I really think that matter is entirely up to them. But the UCs have already started saying that there will almost certainly be a drop in the number of graduate students that they take in, barring funding magically emerging from some unknown source. A drop in the number of graduate students will have an effect on the teaching of undergraduate courses (fewer TAs and discussion section leaders) and will ultimately lead to fewer tenured faculty since there won’t be as large a need for mentors. But just try to tell that to progressives in higher education.JVW (d1812d) — 3/9/2023 @ 8:40 pm
You go to collage to get educated. To many students today use it as a trade school. At least the wokers are trying to educate.
That was true maybe until about 1960. Since then, a huge portion of the students just go there to get credentialed — not educated — and to enjoy their late teen and early adult years with as much fun and as little stress as possible. Sure, there are still students who learn a great deal in various disciplines, but as a cynical professor wrote ten years ago, by and large the universities pretend to teach the students and the students pretend to learn. And the crazy amount of blind faith that progressives have in the higher education industry is as silly as it is frightening. They don’t hold a candle to hardcore Christian Evangelists in the true measure of their devotion.JVW (f95961) — 3/9/2023 @ 8:44 pm
One of my teachers morris starsky was fired from asu football and party school for leading anti-vietnam war demonstration. I and my philosophy professor were discussing the government silencing anti-war critics while the poor little rich kids of snottsdale practiced their tennis back hands. I am glad to see the students today educating their fellow class mates about wokness and micro aggression.asset (ab7077) — 3/9/2023 @ 8:59 pm
I am glad to see the students today educating their fellow class mates about wokness and micro aggression.
I’m sure you are. And I can imagine that this delightful woman is your spirit animal.JVW (3fd880) — 3/9/2023 @ 9:03 pm
I think the idea that the road to a better life runs through the village of higher education is outdated. When everyone one is saying higher education should be free, maybe that is because its value has been diluted to that point in some arenas. Is it an admission that certain majors only pencil out cash flow positive if they are valued at worthless at the point of graduation? We’ve always known that art, literature, music were not going to pencil out and we accepted that. But now if higher education was a ship, not a bubble, we could see that so many barnacles have glommed onto the hull they are sinking the ship.steveg (6d37da) — 3/9/2023 @ 9:17 pm
The real effect will be felt at private colleges, at least at first. Colleges that have little to recommend themselves over state schools will start to go broke. First a few, then a deluge, assuming that government doesn’t step in to prop them up.
Some will try to save themselves via distance learning — everyone has got a feel for it recently, and it lowers a lot of the cost. This will work for some, but between accreditors looking askance and the questionable value of “internet degrees” from 4th-tier schools, it won’t work for everyone.
The top private schools will suffer no pain, and may have increased applications, as will the better state schools. But woe betide the Walden Colleges of this world.Kevin M (1ea396) — 3/9/2023 @ 10:00 pm
I went to collage to get an education. I wanted to be NON ignorant southern white trash/native american. I already had a job driving a garbage truck and later a taxi cab. I was later able to live my philosophy as only a few philosophers have as a non-exploitive capitalist. I owned my own business. I went from capitalist wage slave to capitalist wage slave master though I had no capitalist wage slaves ;but its the thought that counts. Philosophers aren’t paid well ;but if your any good you don’t care and besides I drove garbage and later people to afford to be a philosopher. If you go to collage to get educated you shouldn’t be disappointed.asset (ab7077) — 3/9/2023 @ 11:36 pm
It’s going to get worse for colleges and universities, unless they import millions more students. Take a look at the population pyramid here.
(The change in the total fertility rate over time also deserves a look. It rose while George W. Bush was president.)Jim Miller (f29931) — 3/10/2023 @ 6:11 am
Anyone interested in the problems of our colleges and universities should read Derek Bok’s little book.Jim Miller (f29931) — 3/10/2023 @ 6:31 am
If you go to collage to get educated you shouldn’t be disappointed.
But what happens if you are? Is it then just a caveat emptor sort of thing? If you run a business that continues to provide a dissatisfactory product or service to the customers, you are either forced by the Better Business Bureau to refund their money or your business is shut down. What doesn’t happen is that the dissatisfied goes to the government and has the taxpayer refund the purchase, but that is precisely what we are seeing with the higher education cartel and Joe Biden’s plans to cancel student debt.JVW (c535be) — 3/10/2023 @ 8:14 am
It’s probably only a concern in those fields that don’t lead to a well-defined career. It’s good if young people (and their parents) are taking a hard look at the value of their education dollars. It’s also good if the economic landscape fosters more interest in trade schools and apprenticeships. I think it’s also good if young people do a stint in the military to grow up, figure some things out, and earn education credits for later.
However, I find it hard to be too antagonistic about higher education. Yes, in many cases it’s top heavy with administrators, free speech and ideological diversity are not always rigorously valued (typically in the liberal arts), and inevitably some professors are not as effective as others, but I think we should be careful to not paint with too broad of a brush. Producing competent critical thinkers who can build on their knowledge and learn and apply new information is a worthy and necessary endeavor. China is producing a lot of scientists, engineers, and programmers. Our education system has to keep up. We are still a knowledge-based economy and our higher-ed institutions are still one of our great national assets.AJ_Liberty (5f05c3) — 3/10/2023 @ 8:14 am
It’s also good if the economic landscape fosters more interest in trade schools and apprenticeships.
I think that many degrees in STEM disciplines could be based more on the apprenticeship model. Back when the aerospace industry was still doing reasonably well here in Southern California (I’m talking about the late 90s), there were a lot of engineering techs with associate’s degrees working at companies like Hughes, Boeing, and Raytheon who made good money ($40-50 per hour with generous overtime). Some of the local universities like Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State Long Beach had engineering programs in the evenings, so that these techs could study for a bachelor’s degree while working during the day. And costs were heavily subsidized by their employer. It wasn’t unusual for these programs to have a couple of hundred students taking evening classes.
But the loss of aerospace jobs here coupled with the cuts to continuing education budgets have really driven down enrollments in these programs. That’s too bad.
I think that programming is a great example of an industry where a kid can learn the basics of coding and data structures in high school or at a community college, get a job as an entry-level programmer, then over the course of several years begin taking courses to flesh-out a bachelors degree. If a kid wants the full college experience with fraternity parties, football weekends, and dorm room b.s. sessions then fine, but that student needs to know that there is a less expensive option available if they have the discipline to work towards it.
Chinese kids are sent over here to study and are fortunate to have their government picking up the tab, but it is drilled into their heads that they are in the U.S. to learn and to get a degree in four years or less, and at the first sign of slacking the Chinese government forces them to come back home and the party is over. There’s no interest in “giving the kid space to find zirself” at $80,000 per year like there is here.JVW (f77924) — 3/10/2023 @ 8:37 am
@11 If you go to get educated you will. Almost all who are disappointed are for not getting the job they want after college. If you don’t like collage pollitics you are still being educated.asset (53393a) — 3/10/2023 @ 1:17 pm
@13, I’m also a big fan of using community college for the first two years, then finishing at a university. A lot of it is kid dependent and finance dependent. Some kids may not be mature enough for the college experience, because it might be too easy for them to get sucked into the fraternity thing or the other distractions. Others can manage it and benefit from the freedom, managing meals, laundry, bills, and budgets.
Also, I question the benefit of spending $60k/year on an undergraduate education versus $20k/year at a less prestigious university. It’s undergrad. Grad school I understand being more selective. The reputation of your advisor and the quality of the research at the institution can matter more. But undergrad the instruction will not be that different. Maybe it can matter for truly gifted students, but for 95% of them, I’m not sure if the $40k delta adds that much value.AJ_Liberty (5f05c3) — 3/10/2023 @ 1:58 pm
Wait a minute. When about 2/3rd of students in K-12 are not proficient at their grade level, why are we talking about COLLEGE?
(tab for other grades)
Thirty-three percent of fourth-graders at or above NAEP Proficient in reading …
Thirty-one percent of eighth-graders at or above NAEP Proficient in reading, (surviors who don’t drop out show) Thirty-seven percent of twelfth-grade students at or above NAEP
Sixty of a hundred young people struggle to read the textbooks the states have put in their classrooms. Why send them, as young adults, into another classroom, where they still can’t read? And what confidence do we have that the thirty to forty percent of proficient high school graduates who CAN read at or above HS proficiency levels are ALL able to comprehend COLLEGE-level texts?Pouncer (f28a8a) — 3/10/2023 @ 4:09 pm