The United States continues to see a dramatic decline in the number of students attending college, with 1 million fewer students now enrolled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans’ perception of higher education has also changed considerably.
The share of U.S. adults who believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country has dropped by 14 percentage points since 2020. Less than three-quarters of Democrats and only 37 percent of Republicans now feel that higher education makes a difference for the better.
It’s a stark shift in attitude from just over a decade ago when states, higher education organizations, and the federal government pledged to work toward ambitious goals around college completion and equity in student outcomes.
From 2008 to 2017, the proportion of Americans with postsecondary credentials increased by 10 percentage points. But the trend of the past two years puts the country on a trajectory that could erase nearly all that hard-fought progress.
Higher education leaders and reformers have perhaps been too content with our own success. To reverse the worrying decline in enrollment, it’s time to take seriously the concerns Americans have about the value and return on investment of going to college. We must work diligently to lower not only the financial barriers to college but also the many hurdles to student success.
The long-term social and economic effects of the ongoing decline are significant. A generation opting out of higher education will make an impact that goes beyond those individuals and the institutions that they would have enrolled in—these choices will touch business and the economy, public health, civic engagement, and even the underpinnings of our democracy.
Individuals without a college degree are about 40 percent more likely to be unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 13 percent of people over age 25 with a high school diploma but no college degree live in poverty, compared to just 4 percent of people who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree.
Those who graduate high school but do not go to college are two times more likely to receive Medicaid benefits, and they are four times more likely to use food stamps and need public housing. People without college educations are less likely to vote; they are half as likely to volunteer. Research also suggests that the mortality rates of people with at least some college are less than half of those who never attended college. People with greater educational attainment suffer less anxiety and depression and fewer serious health conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
In other words, the potential result of fewer Americans going to college is a country less wealthy, less healthy, and less engaged in civic participation. The United States cannot sit idly by and wait to find out just how devastating the impact will be.
It’s critical that policymakers and higher education leaders work to reverse this trend. We must ensure that more students enroll and that they remain on track to the career and life outcomes only a college degree can provide.
This starts with streamlining and simplifying the processes for entering—and re-entering—higher education. Providing guidance and coaching to learners will be key, helping them navigate the often too-complex process of going to college. That guidance must continue once students have enrolled, with institutions providing flexible and easily accessible support and resources that take into account the complicated lives of today’s students, many of whom are working or taking care of children.
We need stronger wrap-around services to help learners succeed, from addressing basic needs and insecurity to providing targeted academic support. Policymakers and higher education leaders should push for greater federal investment in evidence-based coaching, advising, and student support services.
It’s also important to acknowledge that a traditional, residential college experience is not the only choice for postsecondary learning; for some students, it’s also not the best one. A rapidly growing number of high-quality alternative credentials, from technical schools to coding boot camps to stackable healthcare certifications are providing learners with options that meet their educational and career needs.
Ensuring students have greater access to these programs, as well as commensurate levels of support, is vital. This shift toward alternative credentials is, in part, driven by the same lack of confidence fueling higher education’s enrollment woes. More than 70 percent of employers now agree that a degree alone is not a reliable signal for assessing the quality of a job candidate. Fair or not, a perception is growing that the college is not worth the price of admission.
Yet college remains the surest path to social mobility, and most of our highest-paying, fastest-growing careers still require a degree. We must eliminate the many barriers to college access and success that reinforce the view that pursuing higher education is no longer worth it.
A highly educated populace remains integral to the overall health of our workforce and economy. The cost of a generation of learners turning away from higher education is one that the United States cannot afford.