(Looking Back and Looking Forward takes a look at the articles and posts I found interesting from the previous week, along with reflections about how the trends they point to might shape my thinking about education and technology.)
The big news this past week came in the form of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s latest report on U.S. college enrollments. The center’s executive director, Doug Shapiro said, “I am surprised that it seems to be getting worse. I thought that we would start to see some of these declines begin to shrink a little bit this term.” But, in reality, the latest drop is simply another data point in a decade-long trend of declining college enrollments. Phil Hill provides a nice snapshot of trends by institution sector combining data from the National Student Clearinghouse and IPEDs.
While COVID has certainly accelerated the decline in the past couple of years, the trend has been in place since 2012 and has significant financial consequences across higher education. Small private institutions (like Hannibal-LaGrange University), regional public universities, and community colleges are particularly at-risk.
What I see in all of this is a deep questioning of what education the average person needs to have a successful career.
The U.S. higher education system took on its modern shape post-WWII with the passing of the G.I. Bill, which provided important benefits, including education benefits, to military personnel. As colleges and universities expanded, in terms of enrollments and degree programs, employers eventually defaulted to the 4-year degree as the foundational credential required to enter most professional careers (by the early 70s).
50 years later, we seem to be experiencing something of a public referendum related to the 4-year degree. While the financial cost of a college degree is definitely a factor for some people who choose not to enroll, it seems that two other factors may weigh even more heavily — time and skills.
A couple of questions people seem to be asking.
- Why go to college if I can earn widely recognized career certifications with proof of job-related skills in 6 months and have strong earning potential?
- Why should I be in a hurry to go to college when companies continue to raise their base pay and benefits to attract workers without a college degree?
Time. Flexibility. Demonstrable proof of job-related skills. Education that is focused on specific careers and jobs. Education that delivers on promises of career outcomes — financial, quality of life, long-term stability — and provides a clear and supported pipeline to employment. Whether we like the change in direction or not, these are the things that matter increasingly to people in the U.S. seeking higher education. And any higher ed institutions that don’t have a big brand will need to make these things a primary focus if they want to survive and thrive.