A recent report highlighted the decline in college enrollment over the last couple of years. That report was centered around the continuing effects of the pandemic. It makes sense that it would be. The coronavirus pandemic is probably the most significant event of our generation. It certainly will have a lasting impact on all facets of life. However, most of the problems that colleges are facing now existed in some shape or form before the pandemic. COVID-19 exacerbated problems, but it did not create them.
There is no one reason people are spurning college. But when you ask them, you will get answers that are NOT unique to the post-pandemic world. College was prohibitively expensive before the pandemic. Graduates were having trouble finding jobs in their chosen fields before the pandemic. People were saddled with tons of student loan debt before the pandemic. These are not transient issues created by a perfect storm of a global pandemic. They are systemic issues that have festered for a long time.
The issues above are already pretty decent deterrents for a lot of potential students but now because of those issues, there is a sizable backlash to the college pathway. There is a contingent of prominent people who actually believe that too many people go to college and that we should focus on skills training instead. I don’t necessarily agree that fewer people should go to college, but it is hard to argue with people who hold that point of view when the pathway to college is so treacherous and expensive.
At the end of the day, college administrators need to realize one thing: Perspective students don’t have to go. It isn’t mandatory and gone are the days where the whole country pretends like it is the only viable career path. Framing all the bad PR that higher education gets as “residual effects of covid” is not helping. If colleges are serious about recruiting and retaining students, they need to work on removing the barriers to attendance and making the experience worth the while.
This is obviously easier said than done. The price of college is not something that is directly controlled by a single administrator, and they certainly don’t control the job market. But schools can mitigate cost and work and take practical measures to ensure their graduates are ready for a job market when they leave school.
Colleges are not simply competing with themselves anymore. They had best act like it.