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College Enrollment Is Down But Probably Not For The Reasons You Think

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

America’s colleges and universities have an enrollment problem.

Or at least that’s what we’ve been told.

And while that’s a little less true than completely true, it’s the why colleges are losing students that the pundits, pontificators and people in general may be getting completely wrong.

First, the enrollment issue that’s dominated news coverage is real. Overall college attendance is down, and not insignificantly. In calling it an “enrollment crisis,” the New York Times correctly reported the newest numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse – that, “662,000 fewer students enrolled in undergraduate programs in spring 2022 than a year earlier, a decline of 4.7 percent.” Enrollment in graduate programs, which had been growing recently, also receded, though only slightly.

With an actual enrollment retrenchment on the near horizon due to changes in demographics, the new numbers did stir concern.

But further down in the Times story and the Clearinghouse data is that “first-time, first-year enrollment increased in spring 2022 by 13,700 students, or 4.2 percent, over last spring.” A spokesperson for the Clearinghouse described that as a “nascent recovery.”

More accurately then, if new student enrollment is up, what colleges have is not an enrollment crisis. What colleges have is a retention crisis. The drop in attendance, in other words, is being driven entirely by those in college not staying in college. Nuance, but an important distinction.

It’s important because it means that how most people publicly characterized and explained this new data, the most recent attendance declines, is very likely, very wrong.

In announcing the new data set, Doug Shapiro of the Clearinghouse told reporters that it “suggests that there’s a broader question about the value of college and particularly concerns about student debt and paying for college and potential labor market returns.”

The Times wrote that the numbers were “raising concerns that a fundamental shift is taking place in attitudes toward the value of a college degree.”

But that’s really, really unlikely.

It is possible that such a “fundamental shift” is underway, even though the evidence continues to overwhelmingly show that earning a college degree is the best possible, most likely and most rewarding path to substantially better career earnings. And if such a “broader question” exists, it’s no doubt pushed along by those who keep asking it as if it were unanswered and by those who profit by asking it. Often, they’re the same people.

There’s no doubt that increasing wages and a nearly unprecedented labor shortage have lured some current and prospective college scholars out of classrooms into punching timecards. And while that’s probably shortsighted in the long term, if it were some kind of recalibration of the “value of a college degree” it’s implausible that first-time college enrollment would actually be up. That new enrollments are up, in this scalding labor market, is contrary evidence to the offered explanation.

Further contrary evidence to the “fundamental shift” speculation is that the more selective, more elite colleges and big name state universities are awash in applicants. The number of people who want to get into those schools continues to surge.

As Terry W. Hartle of the American Council on Education told the Times, “One of the things we are clearly seeing is that well-known institutions, flagship public colleges, have more applicants than they’ve ever had before.”

It’s perhaps obvious that these elite and well-known and flagship colleges are actually more expensive on average than the alternatives – the regional colleges or especially the community colleges. Yet it’s in the less expensive small regionals and community colleges where the enrollment declines are the most dramatic.

If people are suddenly questioning the value of a college degree, it makes no sense that more people than ever are seeking the most expensive type of degree, passing over those of better financial value. That more and more people want to spend more money and take on more debt for the most expensive college options does not speak to the idea that anyone is really questioning the value of a degree.

In other words, what we’re seeing in enrollments, what have been seeing since 2020, is not a reflection of value choices related to earning a degree at all. If it were, first-time enrollments would be down. They aren’t. The most expensive colleges would be suffering while the real value pathways would be faring much better. They aren’t.

What’s more likely driving the enrollment decline, which is now more accurately an uptick in college departures, is indeed a value judgement – but it’s probably a judgement on the quality of the education product, not the value of the degree.

If college undergraduate enrollments are down 9.4 percent since the pandemic started, as the Clearinghouse says they are, you have to wonder what’s changed since the pandemic started? It’s not demographics. That’s still two, maybe three years off. It’s not the earnings return on a college degree – that has not changed. It’s still exceptionally lucrative, on average, to earn a four-year degree.

What’s changed since 2020 is the college experience. Students who signed up for and took out loans to experience the college experience found themselves on soulless zoom calls. They’ve been pushed off campus and yanked back again. Classes are suddenly “hybrid” or worse.

They’ve rightly found that online learning is not anywhere near the quality or experience of the real thing and they don’t understand why they’re being asked to invest – financially and otherwise – in a noticeably inferior product. It’s possible, even probable, that the remote, online, distance education that students never signed up for is, they think, not worth enduring let alone paying for anymore. And they’re leaving. Waiting it out or running to pick up a few bucks until things even out. Hard to blame them.

In fact, that’s no speculation – survey after survey has shown widespread and deep dissatisfaction with the post-2020 iteration of online learning. Given what we’re seeing in the enrollment and retention numbers, it’s much more likely that zoom-U disgust is a larger driver of the trend than some mass reassessment of the value of college.

In this more likely case, enrollments will come back as life on campus does and as the labor market cools. Both will happen. Until they do, understanding what is actually happening – and why – may be important.

Originally published on Forbes on June 13, 2022.