26 February 2022
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Americans going to college has dropped by 1 million. Researchers estimated the total could be as high as 3 million over the last 10 years.
Education experts in the United States have recently talked about the reasons leading to the decline. They include lower birth rates, higher pay for most jobs during the pandemic and the rising cost of a college education.
However, education experts and economists are starting to think about the long-term effects if the drop continues. Some warn the decline could affect the U.S. as competing nations like China greatly increase their college attendance.
Jason Lane is the leader of the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University in Ohio. He called it a "crisis" that is not widely recognized.
With fewer people going to college, "society is going to be less healthy," Lane said. "It's going to be less economically successful. It's going to be harder to find folks to fill the jobs of the future..."
Adriana Lleras-Muney is an economist from the University of California-Los Angeles. She said the growing education gap could also worsen existing divisions over politics, socioeconomic status, race, and national origin.
"We're seeing a lot more people moving into the very unlucky group instead of the lucky group," said Lleras-Muney. "That will be very bad for them personally. It will start showing up in their health, their likelihood of remaining in marriage — you name it."
And another expert, Awilda Rodriguez from the University of Michigan, observed that recent gains "in reducing class-based and racial inequality are being wiped away."
Among the most affected, researchers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center say, are children from poor families. And the number of young men starting college has also dropped by 10 percent in the last two years.
The College Board says people who only finish high school will earn almost $25,000 per year less than people who finish college. Government agencies and the Pew Research Center note that those without college degrees run a risk of living in poverty or becoming unemployed. They are more likely to pay less tax, need government help, lead an unhealthy lifestyle, and die younger.
Jennifer Ma is a senior researcher from The College Board. She said as older Americans retire, good jobs that require college degrees will remain unfilled. She called the drop in college attendance during the pandemic "a really scary number."
And Lane of Miami University added, "what we're seeing right now is hospitals understaffed, supply chain concerns, schools closing because we don't have enough people to keep them open."
Increased international competition
As fewer Americans are going to college, countries including China, Canada, Korea, and Russia are investing more in higher education.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that the U.S. is now 12th among its 38 member countries in adults with college degrees. Just 20 years ago, the U.S. was third.
China is one country making progress. Since 2000, China has increased its number of college students from 7.4 million to nearly 45 million in 2018. The information comes from World Education Services.
Another study from Georgetown University says that by 2025, China will be producing nearly two times the number of students with advanced degrees in science, engineering, technology, and math each year than the U.S.
Jamil Salmi is a higher education expert who once worked at the World Bank. He said the lack of Americans with college degrees may lead companies to move businesses to countries with more highly educated citizens.
The college attendance "crisis," as Miami's Lane put it, could result in some good news in the U.S. Some who study labor think employers will consider life experience a little more when offering people jobs.
Monty Sullivan is president of Louisiana Community and Technical College System. He said companies are starting to think about a person's skills more than whether they have a "piece of paper," meaning a college degree.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia recently found more job listings that pay above the national median wage are open to people without college degrees.
At the same time, if the number of students stays low, the business of higher education will be hurt. For example, colleges will not need as many professors and support workers. About four million people work in higher education in the U.S. and a recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that colleges and universities combine to spend over $630 billion per year.
Rodriguez, from the University of Michigan, said with fewer students, colleges might have to make it easier for others, especially those from poor families, to get into and finish college.
"It's not just about productivity or workforce development, though all of those things are true," she said. "It's about making opportunities available to students."
I'm Jill Robbins. And I'm Dan Friedell.
Words in This Story
society – n. people who live together in a group
folk – n. an informal reference to people
status – n. the position or rank of a person or group in society
national origin – n. the place in the world a person or their family comes from
scary – adj. causing fear
understaffed – adj. the state of not having enough workers
median – adj. the middle number in a group
opportunity – n. a chance to do something
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