Higher Education Watch
Is the Bubble Bursting?

After decades of steady increases, college enrollment rates have been ticking downward since 2008, according to the Washington Post. The trend is evident across all income categories, but it is especially pronounced among students from low-income families:

According to an annual Census Bureau survey, overall college enrollment rates dropped three percentage points between 2008 and 2013, from 69 percent to 66 percent.

But college enrollment among the poorest high school graduates — defined as those from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes — dropped 10 percentage points during the same time period, the largest sustained drop in four decades, according to the analysis. In 2013, just 46 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions, according to the data.

Students from these families don’t have the luxury of biding their time in expensive degree programs, accumulating debt and thinking about what to do with their lives. They are more likely to decide whether to enroll in higher education based on whether the degree is “worth it” from a strictly economic perspective. As one education expert cited in the Post explained:

Anthony Carnevale, a research professor who directs the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said that he wasn’t surprised by the findings. A low-income student’s decisions about college are more sensitive to broader economic trends and to sticker prices than a more affluent student’s might be, he said.

That’s in part because while affluent young people often think of themselves as students who might work on the side, low-income students tend to see themselves differently: “They see themselves as workers who are going to school,” Carnevale said, so going to school is about getting a better job.

Overall, the new data is not good news for America’s bloated higher education sector. Students from all backgrounds are increasingly deciding that college is not a good investment. Right now the drop-off is most dramatic among low-income students, but it may not stay that way. If tuition continues to rise faster than wages, and if degree programs continue to fail to equip students with the skills they need to pay for them, then we might see a significant drop in college attendance among students higher up on the income ladder as well.

American policymakers and education professionals need to be aggressively experimenting with new ways to give students—especially poor students—the skills they need to succeed in the modern economy without forcing them into costly degree programs. Fortunately, there are some signs that the political class is starting to think outside the box on this subject, but much more is needed.

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