Why Are College Enrollments Dropping?

Fewer people are going to college these days. Enrollment numbers have dropped since last year, with an obvious cause being the pandemic.

But I don’t think the pandemic can bear all the blame. After all, in our high-tech society, many colleges were able to roll out virtual classes and online learning to address the threat of the pandemic. So why is enrollment dropping? 

If we go to college to take classes and learn, then enrollment should, in theory, stay steady if online learning can accomplish that goal. 

While the pandemic has certainly changed higher education, it primarily revealed weaknesses that already existed, prior to the spread of COVID19.

A Lopsided Value Proposition

The pandemic has revealed how lopsided the value proposition of traditional college is. Students pay thousands of dollars, take out loans, and get in years of debt. In return, they get to take classes and a degree, if they get good enough grades.

The popular reasoning for college is that if a student gets a good degree, they’ll get a good job. And with a good job, everything else falls into place.

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This reasoning is skewed because it neglects the wide realities of life that transcend career. Colleges position themselves as the gateway to the good life. But the “good life” doesn’t just look like having a good job with a high salary. And college isn’t the gateway to fulfillment in life.

Colleges can’t even claim to be the sole gateway to a great career. Many people have great careers in the trades, entrepreneurship, or other vocations that don’t require a college degree. Furthermore, many careers that require a college degree, probably don’t really need to. 

For example, you don’t need a degree in English to be a great writer. You don’t need a degree in hospitality management to run a hotel well. There are many careers where the degree requirement is an arbitrary barrier. (Others, like medical careers for example, do require a certain level of formal training and education. Colleges are good options for students pursuing these fields of study.)

Out of Touch

The pandemic has pulled aside the curtain on this reality: colleges are charging an arm and a leg for something that isn’t quite as essential as they’d like to think it is.

Nobody wants to pay thousands to sit on their bed and attend zoom lectures. And we see that reality reflected in the dropping enrollment numbers. 

More people are realizing that college, for all its value, isn’t the only next step open to them after they graduate from high school. More students are exploring the trades, gap years, entrepreneurship, or just jumping into work without a degree.

Perhaps the drop in enrollment numbers can be traced back to a higher education system that is out of touch with the real preparation students need for the real world. As the value proposition becomes more lopsided with the pandemic challenges, students need to think seriously about whether or not the path they’re on passes through college. Many students in the past have assumed this to their own detriment.

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