Monday, April 4, 2022

Is The Big College Enrollment Dip Bad News?

Looking at reports that the pandemic resulted in many, many missing college students, Mike Petrelli (Fordham Institution) is musing that perhaps this is not bad news.

On top of the pandemic dropouts, we've also got the plummeting number of students signing up for a college education. And while regular readers know that I don't very often agree with Petrilli, in this case I think he may have a valid point or two.

Petrilli notes the correlation between college and positive life outcomes, though it's worth noting that this is a correlation only, and like the fabled correlation between third grade reading levels and high school success, it probably points at some other factor that is behind it all (spoiler alert: socio-economic background). Petrilli delivers a sideways nod to this by noting that the benefits of college more precisely correlate with completing college.

Petrilli crunches some numbers. 65-70 percent of high school grads enroll in college (that's pre-pandemic). 37.8% of college students don't complete a degree within six years.  Equals about 900K persons leaving college without a degree every year. 

So why is college completion at such a low rate? Petrilli notes that the problem might be that many students were never prepared to succeed in the first place, and he uncharacteristically doesn't blame this on terrible public schools (this time). Makes me nostalgic for the days when reformsters would point at college remediation courses as proof that K-12 schools needed to be more Common Corey. Instead, he says this:

To put it succinctly, many young people don’t do well in college because they aren’t very good students in an academic setting, they haven’t done very well in school, and they don’t like it all that much. Which may make us wonder why we encouraged them to go to college in the first place.

He's not wrong. Today's young adults have been subjected to a lifelong barrage of pressure that they should head off to college. These are the same folks who were once the eight year olds that Arne Duncan wanted to be able to tell they were on track for college, back when the feds believed that success was defined as "everyone enrolls in college."

I taught 11th graders of all levels for decades, and I could see how this played out. Many of my students aimed determinedly at blue collar work, the jobs, as Mike Rowe, that make civilized life possible for the rest of us. But the "get into college" bug was everywhere, and I lost count of the number of times I delivered a sermonette entitled "After you get in, they'll expect you to be able to Do Stuff." Along with another one entitled "If you don't like school stuff, college is probably not going to excite you." For my students in the career and technical ed track, I started each year by explaining that this course was aimed at workplace skills and language use tailored for students who would, in two years time, be out on their own in the "real world." It was not, I explained to the walls of my classroom, not going to cover college-specific academics, because a welder doesn't have a pressing need to know how to create an MLA-compliant term paper.

Nevertheless, I would repeatedly hear some version of, "I'm definitely going to college, but I don't want to take the college prep class because it's too much work and/or too hard and/or not what my friends are taking."

I often imagined this conversation between colleges and high schools.

College: Why did you send us this student? They aren't ready to be here at all!

High school: Did you look at the transcript we sent you, or the letters? They were an indifferent student who took our non-college-prep courses. We told you they weren't ready. You accepted them anyway.

College: Well, their check cleared. And we make extra $$ by making them take remediation courses. This is all your fault. You guys suck.

This behavior by colleges only fed the problem. We could tell students they needed the college prep classes to get ready for college, but they already knew a dozen students from last year's senior class who had done poorly in non-college classes and they had been accepted.

So Petrilli argues that maybe the students who aren't in college are the ones who wouldn't have succeeded there.

He also argues that it's may be a positive sign that we're getting over our college fixation, and that the pendulum is swinging back toward a healthy respect for career and technical education, and as someone who taught in a district where CTE was always a strong feature, I would applaud such a shift.

And third, he holds out the hope that this all might create pressure on colleges to shape up, and stop admitting students who will only be tuition paying members for a few years before they drift off, leaving nothing but their money behind and-- yeah, he's dreaming on this one.

The factor that Petrilli does not mention is that a college education has become a cost-inefficient prospect that involves tremendous debt without a commensurate return. One need look no further than teaching, which has become really expensive to get into, but which doesn't pay much better than it did a decade ago. And it just keeps getting more expensive, leaving students gambling a ton of debt on what they've been told is the key to getting into the middle class. I shouldered the bulk of the debt for my two older children's college education, and didn't finish paying it off until after I'd retired; I cannot imagine what they would have gone through trying to manage that kind of debt in their twenties and early thirties. It's nuts. College would be an elites-only luxury, except that college as we have it can't afford to chase that small a market, so instead we keep increasing the ways that students can wrack up debt. There was a time when I worried that I would be cut off and not allowed to accrue any more college debt for my children and boy, what a naive dope I was. They would have let me sink myself as deep into debt as long as I was willing to keep digging, and I was a grown-ass adult. What chance do young people have?

So the big dip could be a good thing, or at least a healthy thing, unless you think there's some sort of international college diploma-counting competition for world supremacy (and not, say, a How Cheaply Can Your Labor Force Sell Themselves competition), or unless you think it's not healthy for a country to get higher education only to the upper classes. Because if that was the case, then it would be bad news. Here's hoping that someone in the halls of ivy figures it out.


  1. Colleges have a nearly 40% drop-out rate. I would suggest this closely correlates to the trend of upscaling the campus experience. What message does it send to students when your college is advertised as little more than a dry-docked cruise ship?

  2. All very true. I would add that even many upper-income students do not succeed in college. For example, New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL graduates 98% of its students, who come from a very wealthy, highly educated community. But only 86% pursue college or vocational programs after gradudation, and of course not all of those graduate.

    In addition, high schools are evaluated in large part on the % of grads that they send on to college. There is no incentive to help them land jobs, pursue non-academic training programs, or anything except college (and 4-year college is respected over community college). To me, this dynamic shows a lack of respect for the individuality of young people. I'm even aware of a high school (a charter school that serves HSS drop-outs) that requires students to complete and submit 3 college applications as a condition of graduation.