Is there an upside to the downward trend in higher education enrollment?
In a recently published article, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute president Michael Petrilli writes that the “sky is falling” arguments lamenting the decline in college enrollments are “entirely too pessimistic.”
Furthermore, Mr. Petrilli writes that the current enrollment declines are encouraging for three reasons. First, there’s a good chance that students who are deferring college are making a decision that is in their own best interest. Second, the downward trend may be a sign that the U.S.’s “college for all” fever is breaking. Third, if the declines continue, they will force the higher ed establishment, particularly community colleges, to make changes that will benefit students and taxpayers alike.
Mr. Petrilli acknowledges that it is true that adults with a college degree make more money than those without a college degree. He further writes that the “college wage premium” should be called the “college completion premium” since there is not a wage premium for those with some college but not a degree.
Drawing from data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Mr. Petrilli writes that the six-year completion rate for any degree or certificate is 62.2 percent which means that 37.8 percent of college students drop out without any credential. Based on the pre-pandemic high school graduate to college matriculation rate, that’s about 900,000 students each year who leave college with no degree or certificate.
Why do students drop out each year? Mr. Petrilli writes that the overwhelming evidence indicates that they were not prepared to succeed in the first place. They lacked reading, writing, and math skills as well as other attributes like learning how to take notes and study for a test or the perseverance to read a book that may not be of interest to them at all.
If the one million students who are not enrolling in college today are the same one million students who would not have completed a degree, Mr. Petrilli writes that we should be celebrating the fact that they are choosing to do something else with their time and money.
Petrilli touts his belief that American attitudes have changed from the elitist view that college was the only ticket to the middle class. He adds that we should celebrate the dignity of work, including work that does not require a degree.
A substantial benefit from these trends could be an acknowledgement from colleges that they need to change. Mr. Petrilli writes that community colleges have gladly taken students checks and Pell Grants for years while allowing them to fail courses and drift away. Why? Because the students were not prepared to succeed in college. Perhaps community colleges will be honest with students about their chances of success as well as the value that training might provide to their job prospects.
I agree with some, but not all, of Mr. Petrilli’s arguments. In most of the articles about college dropout rates, you seldom read about the ineffective preparation of high school students for college. At the same time, if a student’s basic knowledge of reading, writing, and math does not meet the minimum standards for college, it’s not the college’s fault even though it is the college’s problem. There need to be more examples of colleges reaching out to the K-12 community and providing feedback on what needs to be done to prepare students for college rather than accepting everyone and allowing them to sink or swim.
At the same time, Mr. Petrilli’s arguments ignore data from research papers like the study published about students attending the Virginia Community College System and the insights into their drop out rates and earnings with or without a degree. In some cases, it appears that adult students are deciding to not complete their degree because their potential earnings don’t justify the added time and expense to complete it. We’ve known for years that degrees like engineering and business provide a quicker reward to graduates than liberal arts and humanities degrees. At the bachelor’s level, students have more options for employment or continuing to graduate school. Non-completers have fewer options, whether they attended community colleges or four-year colleges.
The situation for colleges, community colleges in particular, is exacerbated by the announcements of education and training programs sponsored by large employers like Amazon and Intel.
High school graduates hired by Amazon and Intel are not only able to receive training that may enhance their future job prospects, but they’re also able to receive reimbursement for college courses that may lead to a future degree. Given the rhetoric about the lack of an affordable college degree, it’s not difficult to understand why the word would spread about working for an employer who pays you and pays for your education.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blogs are not at the top of college presidents’ reading lists and Mr. Petrilli is not likely a household name in higher ed. He takes a bold step, however, by calling out the lack of preparedness of high school students for college as well as the complicit acceptance of those students at open enrollment institutions without a pre-check for their preparedness for the rigor of a college education. Mr. Petrilli opens the door to a bigger conversation about pushing back on our high schools that push students out the door without the ability to complete required college courses in English and math.
If the pace of training and education options from large employers like Amazon and Intel outperforms the training and education offerings from open enrollment institutions like community colleges, the decline in college enrollments will continue. Institutions that want to thrive will have to improve their curriculum, partner with employers, and be more transparent about the academic requirements to succeed in college.