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Why All the Empty Seats?
Spring 2022 saw 685,000 fewer students compared to last year, and projections estimate that the decline in postsecondary enrollment will continue into the fall.
The US has seen a steady decline in the proportion of high school graduates enrolling in college the fall after they finish high school. While the pandemic made the situation worse, the trend actually started back in 2016 when 70% of high school graduates were enrolled in some form of postsecondary education right after high school. By Fall 2020, only about 63% of high school graduates were enrolled in that immediate Fall semester:
The official “immediate college enrollment” data isn’t available for 2021 yet, but we already know there were 685,000 fewer students enrolled in postsecondary schooling this past Spring compared to last Spring and the Fall semester is projected to see yet another decline in enrollment. Young adults are playing The Game of Life as they decide whether to start a career or go to school, but each year a larger percentage seem to be opting for the work path instead of the college path. It’s a new and confusing trend that isn’t typical in the United States. Michael Hicks, the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University’s Miller College of Business highlights the oddity:
With the exception of wartime, the United States has never been through a period of declining educational attainment like this.
While the pandemic explains some of the recent declines, the longer trend can also be explained by population declines and the impact of a strong labor market. The 2020 Census found a 10.1% increase in the number of adults since 2010, but that was largely driven by the aging of baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. By comparison, the number of people under the age of 18 fell by about a million people from 74.2 million in 2010 to 73.1 million in 2020. This trend is largely the result of a general decrease in fertility that has been ongoing since 2007.
While there are fewer children compared to a decade ago, the demographic shift doesn’t fully explain the scale of the drop in enrollment numbers. The labor force participation rates for those 16-24 haven’t changed much over the past decade, which suggests that a larger percentage of these young adults aren’t suddenly going to work full-time instead of college full-time. The labor force participation rate is calculated as the number of people participating in the labor market, either by working or trying to find a job, divided by the civilian population that’s being studied. Stronger labor markets tend to pull some marginal high school graduates into the labor force through employment because as earnings increase, the opportunity cost of going to school grows too large.
The eventual spillover effects of declining enrollment could be much larger than we anticipate. Education is often promoted as the popular example of positive externalities and a major determinant of a country’s growth rate. A positive externality occurs when society benefits in addition to the person who made the decision. People who earn degrees increase not only their own earnings but the earnings and job opportunities of others. Those spillover benefits are part of the reason that education is such an important component of economic growth in addition to health investments.
While it may be a good investment for society, a growing number of individuals don’t believe it’s a good investment for them. Determining whether an investment is worth it, decision-makers should way both the costs and benefits. A 2021 survey of college graduates found that only half of respondents believed their college degree was worth the cost while a 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 38% of American adults believed that colleges and universities were having a negative impact on the country. That’s up 26% from 2012.
There has seem to be a fairly self-congratulatory spirit among higher education administrators for their work in pivoting operations during the pandemic, but they should now take a more serious look at the broad challenges facing all of higher education. Before the pandemic, Americans’ faith in higher education dropped more over a 5-year time frame than in any other institution — including the presidency, Congress, bug business, and the criminal justice system.
In 2020, there were 6,650,345 male students and 9,201,561 female students enrolled in postsecondary education [National Center for Education Statistics]
In July 2022, the labor force participation rate was 71.1% for Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 [US Bureau of Labor Statistics]
There are 88,743,000 people in the United States who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree [US Census Bureau]
For the 2019-2020 school year, a full-time undergraduate student would pay an average of $9,400 for tuition and fees at a public university [National Center for Education Statistics]
In a 2018 survey, 48% of respondents said they have a great deal (or quite a lot) of confidence in the higher education industry [Gallup]