When college enrollment plummeted during the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, it was easy to blame the downturn on Zoom University. No one wanted to trade fall days on campus for learning through a screen in their parents’ basement, especially when the subpar product came at no discount.
But the pandemic did not erode the value of a college degree; colleges themselves did that, and students know it: Recent data shows that even now, with colleges back in action, fewer people are enrolling. This past spring saw a 4.7% decline in enrollment, even worse than the previous fall.
Community colleges are bearing the brunt of this downturn, which is unsurprising given that their students are the most price-sensitive. This is not an educational tragedy. Sixty percent of community college students never earn their degree. If any other business failed to deliver a product or service to 60% of its customers, that business would not survive. An educational tragedy would be perpetually enrolling more students in programs that do not serve them.
There are two educational pathways, however, that are booming: Skilled trades programs and apprenticeships. The reduced cost of these programs compared to a bachelor’s degree only tells half the story of their advantages: These programs take substantially less time, allowing students to enter the workforce faster than they would if they had pursued a four-year degree.
Apprenticeships are doubly beneficial because companies shoulder much of the cost. The federal taxpayer is not required to front the money for these programs, and the programs lead directly to jobs because companies choose to fund the apprenticeships that they need to build their future workforce.
We have a shortage of loggers and a surplus of gender studies majors; too few truckers and too many sociologists. Supply and demand remain undefeated. The education market, as warped as it is by government subsidies, is not entirely immune to what students want. They want to be in-demand workers, and most college degrees won’t help get them there.
While this is dismal news for college administrators, it is good news for the taxpayer and for students who are choosing to go into the trades rather than get pricey degrees they may not want or ever end up using.
Higher education is so regulated by the federal government and propped up by the federal taxpayer that the industry is largely insulated from market forces. The federal taxpayer spent $150 billion on higher education in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, and the return on that investment is suspect at best. Before the pandemic and the student loan freeze, 5.2 million borrowers were in default on their federal student loans. Any other product that failed 5.2 million people would be recalled.
Unless colleges drastically increase their value or cut their costs, the enrollment decline is not a problem to be fixed but a trend to be embraced. If this country can get more young people into careers that make them money instead of college degrees that don’t, the next generation will benefit.