Faculty enrollments could have peaked, consultants say

Baruch College graduates attend a graduation ceremony at the Barclays Center on June 5, 2017 in Brooklyn, New York.

Bebeto Matthews | AP

In the coming days, 125,000 high school graduates will receive automated acceptance letters from the State University of New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Thursday.

“Access to quality higher education is an engine of social mobility, and we are taking comprehensive steps to ensure higher education is affordable and accessible to students of all backgrounds,” the New York governor said in a statement.

Nationwide, college enrollments have lagged noticeably since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a significant number of students decided against a four-year degree and instead entered the workforce or completed a certificate program without the hefty price tag or zoom screen.

But long before 2020, enrollments were expected to drop.

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“The enrollment crisis didn’t start with the pandemic, it accelerated with the pandemic,” said Hafeez Lakhani, founder and president of Lakhani Coaching in New York. “This is the fuel in the fire.”

Student enrollment in the US peaked at about 18 million more than a decade ago, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, estimates that there are more than 2.5 million fewer students enrolled in college today.

The number of college-age students is shrinking

Not only are fewer and fewer students interested in pursuing any degree after high school, but the number of college-age students is shrinking, a trend dubbed the “enrollment cliff.”

“Faith in higher education as an institution is declining across the board,” said Cole Clark, managing director of higher education at Deloitte and co-author of a recent trends report. “It’s as big a threat as the demographic cliff.”

Today, only about 62% of high school seniors in the US go straight to college, compared to 68% in 2010. Those who drop out are often low-income students who increasingly feel excluded from postsecondary education.

As other reports also show, studying is increasingly becoming a path that only those who can afford it have.

Aspiring college students are paying closer attention to ROI as tuition remains high and a labor shortage increases job opportunities, with or without a degree.

At the same time, deep cuts in government funding for higher education have shifted more of the cost onto students and paved the way for significant increases in tuition fees.

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High school students are more interested in vocational training

Most Americans still agree that college education is worthwhile for career goals and advancement. However, according to a report by Public Agenda, USA Today and Hidden Common Ground, only half believe the economic benefits outweigh the costs – and young adults are particularly skeptical.

The report found that rising tuition fees and rising student loan amounts have played a large role in changing views of the higher education system, which many believe is rigged to benefit the affluent.

According to a study by the ECMC Group, only 45% of low-income, first-generation, or minority students believe post-high school education is necessary.

High school students place more value on professional training and employment after college, the nonprofit found after surveying more than 5,000 high school students six times since February 2020.

More than 75% of high school students now say a two-year degree or technical certification is sufficient, and only 41% believe they need a four-year degree to get a good job, according to a separate report by Junior Achievement and Citizens yielded.

“Many students are weighing their options,” said Connie Livingston, director of student advisors at the student advisory firm Empowerly and a former admissions officer at Brown University.

“Does it make more sense to go to community college, trade school, or go straight into the workforce? In this economic climate, that is attractive.”

A college degree is almost always worthwhile

And yet earning a bachelor’s degree is almost always worthwhile, research shows.

According to The College Payoff, a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, bachelor’s graduates generally earn 75% more than those with only a high school degree — and the higher the education, the bigger the payoff.

But even if degrees represent a high premium on the job market, according to Deloitte’s Clark, trust in the higher education system is waning.

“There’s a lot of talk about the person with a college degree, a lot of debt and underemployment,” he said.

“You will continue to see this paradox,” Lakhani added. “There’s a subconscious consensus that college is only worth going to if you can go to college that’s life-changing.”

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