Student Debt, Job Market, Politics

  • College enrollment has declined over the last decade.
  • It comes amid higher education affordability issues and a surging student-debt crisis.
  • Today’s hot labor market and campus politics may also have contributed to the drop.

A college degree just might not be worth it anymore.

While higher education has long been viewed as key to achieving the American Dream, surging tuition costs, a hot labor market, and campus politics may be why college enrollment in the US has fallen in the last decade.

According to figures published on the National Center for Education Statistics, total fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions reached 21 million in 2010. This enrollment then declined year after year to just over 18 million in 2021.

According to Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment has been steadily declining since the Great Recession.

Shapiro added that “colleges and universities haven’t really started to recover yet from the large drops in enrollments that started at the beginning of the pandemic in fall 2020.”

And, as Alicia Sasser Modestino, associate professor at Northeastern University, told Insider in a statement, “the recent declines in college enrollment reflect a continuation of long-term trends that have been exacerbated by COVID.”

Here are three reasons why college enrollment may have collapsed.

It’s not worth drowning in debt

As tuition costs continue to rise, more and more people have turned to student loans to finance their higher education — and it’s led to a $1.7 trillion student debt crisis impacting 45 million Americans.

College affordability concerns persist. Younger Gen Zers thinking about whether they should go to college may be seeing the value of a degree differently than older generations who have already graduated, likely due to the surging student-debt load in the US.

“The first couple of generations to go through using primarily the student loan system was more of an experiment,” Stephanie Hall, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Insider.

“I think younger generations have seen the impact of that debt on the older generations, especially as some of us have navigated more than one inflationary or recessionary period,” Hall said. “So that’s certainly impacting students’ college-going habits.”

As Insider previously reported, the annual price to attend a four-year college was roughly $10,000 in 1980 (adjusted for inflation in 2020 dollars). By 2020, it was nearly $30,000 in that year’s dollars, leaving many prospective students wondering whether a four-year degree is really worth all that money.

To complicate matters further, high interest rates and difficulty getting information from the companies that service the debt can cause borrowers’ balances to balloon, keeping them in repayment far longer than anticipated. 

While the Supreme Court is still deliberating the legality of President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in loans for federal borrowers, many experts have still argued that one-time relief is not enough to tackle college affordability issues in the future and improve enrollment. For example, experts told Insider last year that being more transparent about college pricing and switching from loans to grants could help make higher education more attainable down the road.

Still, according to an American Enterprise Institute analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, college tuition and fees increased only 0.9% in 2021, the smallest increase since at least 1978. It’s a good sign — but with the various reforms to student-loan repayment plans Biden is planning to implement, the Government Accountability Office anticipates colleges will raise tuition, and therefore lead to increased borrowing.

Why learn when you can earn

The robust labor market may have also contributed to college enrollment falling. 

During COVID disruptions, Modestino said “many would-be college students took jobs to support their households and as wages have risen, there is even less of an incentive to enroll.” 

And in recent years during the pandemic as companies dealt with hiring woes, they may have loosened their typical education requirements.

“The tight labor market has also meant that employers are willing to forego a college degree to be able fill some jobs and have even been willing to train workers,” Modestino said. “For Gen Z, it’s certainly the case that the ‘college for all’ mentality has been replaced with ‘show me the money.'”

Gen Zers and young job seekers have been using alternate methods to gain skills rather than obtaining an expensive degree. Nathan Allred left a technical college and eventually became a sheet-metal apprentice where he was able to develop the skills he needed by watching the other journeymen on the job — and while getting paid.

“I say if you find out college isn’t for you, you don’t learn that way, you’d rather learn hands-on — stay out of student debt, try out a trade,” Allred previously told Insider.

Republicans question the value of college

Over the last several years, colleges and universities have become political minefields. Concerns that professors are bringing their liberal politics into the classroom and protecting students from views they might find offensive have made Republicans more skeptical of college as a value proposition. That may partially explain the drop in college enrollments.

Since the 1960s, Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan complained that colleges lacked conservative professors and perspectives, but they never doubted the economic benefits of a college education, Will Bunch, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist and higher-ed expert, told Insider.

“It’s fairly recent that people have been saying college isn’t worth it, don’t go there,” Bunch said, noting Republican approval of colleges began to sink in 2015, “the same year that Donald Trump came down the escalator and announced his run for president.”

Whereas a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents once thought colleges and universities had a positive impact on the country, that dropped from 54% in 2015 to 33% by 2019, according to a Pew Research Center report.

Today’s concerns about student debt and workplace readiness mean “the ideological argument takes on a lot more power,” Bunch said. In April 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tried to restrict discussion of race and gender in workplaces and college classrooms with his Stop WOKE Act.

Such attacks on colleges over the years might have caused Republicans to question the skill benefits of a college education. A 2016 Pew survey found that 58% of Republicans, including those who said they lean toward the party, think skill acquisition should be the “main purpose” of college compared to 43% of their Democratic counterparts. But, among those worried about the direction of US higher education, 73% of Republicans think college is failing to teach these compared to 56% of Democrats, according to 2018 Pew data.

“If you are already thinking college should be about career preparation and you don’t like what you’re hearing about the politics on campus, it’s a double disincentive for someone” to enroll who’s already on the fence, Bunch said. “It’s going to tip the decision towards not going.”

Though there isn’t data showing Republican voters are enrolling at lower rates because of these concerns, they are more likely to question the value of college. According to survey data by the think tank New America, 40% of Republicans and independents think a public four-year college might not be worth the cost, compared to 22% of Democrats.

“The conservative political piece is just the cherry on top,” Bunch said. “It’s a contributing factor but not the largest factor.”

Politicians of both parties seem to be catching on to these trends as states and companies have dropped degree requirements to hire and retain workers in recent years.

Did you decide to not enroll in college? Did you get a job without a college degree? Reach out to these reporters to share your story at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected].