For a generation or more America has held a rough cultural consensus: that the more people go to college, the better. In fact, some have argued for everyone to get some higher ed experience, or least to prepare all K-12 students for that choice.
What if that consensus is breaking up? What might happen if most of America is no longer convinced of “college for all”?
In this post I’d like to explore such a scenario. I’ll back it up with a bit of research, focusing on current trends, then conclude with some forecasting, and leave the idea open for your commentary, critique, and development.
This is a long one, so grab a cup of your preferred beverage and buckle in.
1: The Inherited Consensus
We can start by recollecting the recent consensus. Over recent decades, American society called for increasing numbers of people to get college and university degrees. We saw the proof of this desire in the long enrollment boom stretching from the 1980s through 2012.
The reasons behind the consensus are easy to identify: the need to prepare workers and residents for an information economy; the belief that a more educated population is wealthier and healthier; the personal benefits of degrees. These reasons became more evident as America deindustrialized, propelled a digital revolution, and competed on an increasingly challenging and globalized marketplace.
We can identify a series of developments in the 20th century which led to that conviction. The GI Bill gave veterans access to higher education after WWII and Korea. The Sputnik shock, then the full on space race drove an increase in STEM study. The Civil Rights movement expanded access for black people. Vietnam-era draft deferments for study grew enrollment. The large Baby Boom population needed expanded higher ed capacity to serve it at historical rates, which the Higher Education Act (1965) supported. In the 1970s and 80s there was a push for more education to save the fortunes of people in the deindustrializing Rust Belt. At the same time the conservative anti-union drive, followed by a bipartisan neoliberalism, made higher ed a desirable way to boost one’s changes in a tougher labor market. (cf Cottom’s excellent Lower Ed) Adult higher ed expanded.
John Sener found this great table about the 1980s:
Look at that rise, and just over one decade!
There’s a lot more going on here, worth a bunch of blog posts, but for our purposes today it’s enough to set the stage. By the 21st century’s second decade the United States was committed to increasing access to higher ed for everyone. From guidance counselors to state governors, federal agencies to families, we held a rough, uneven consensus that the more people took college classes and, better yet, degrees, the better for everyone.
And it was uneven. Children of the wealthy obviously had an easier time deciding to attend college, while the poor and minoritized did not. Robert Putnam showed that differences in public K-12 funding at a hyperlocal level skewed college preparation. Yet the overall picture, as rough and uneven as it was, was for more people to go.
What could shatter that consensus?
2: How to Break Up a Consensus
To begin with, politics. Political partisanship already shapes some seriously negative attitudes – i.e., a lot more Republicans than Democrats are skeptical of higher ed. Unless the GOP experiences some kind of transformation to loving academia (and 2022’s local races show no signs of this), then a good number of Americans have already broken from the consensus.
While Republicans attack familiar campus targets (critical race theory, “useless” majors, gender studies), criticisms and open fear about higher education aren’t restricted to partisanship. Few of these are new, especially the widespread dread about student debt. Anxieties around published tuition figures receive plenty of media play, as do account of extremely high amounts of loans, way beyond the media, which is circa $30,000. Published tuition is roughly twice what people actually pay on average, as I’ve been saying for years, but academia’s practice of tuition discounting is largely invisible.
Beyond debt and politics, there is also the sense that some jobs can take workers to the middle class without much or any college experience. We can point to popular advocates for such work, like Mike Rowe and Matthew Crawford. They indicate jobs where workers are especially in demand, and were so before the so-called Great Resignation, such as woodworking or plumbing. The current American labor market is very good, with unemployment now standing at 3.6%. This may encourage employers to withdraw college degree requirements from job applicants. As a Washington Post article observes:
While the pandemic labor shortage has prompted more employers to welcome applications from workers without degrees, workforce advocates have been pushing back for years with some success against so-called degree inflation triggered by the Great Recession.
This represents a shift from the past decade and a half:
When the economy tanked in 2008 and millions of laid-off workers began competing for scarce jobs, employers got pickier about who they hired and increasingly added four-year degree requirements to some “middle-skills” jobs that had frequently been filled by workers without degrees. (Middle-skills jobs, which include positions in fields such as health care, IT and sales, require some training or education beyond high school, although not necessarily a B.A.)
This needs some more detail. A recent Gallup poll showed large numbers of parents expecting their children to enter the workforce right out of high school. They split over attitudes towards those children entering college:
About half (54%) of parents of children between the ages of 11 and 25 said that if there were no limitations on their child’s opportunities after high school, they prefer or would have preferred their child pursue a four-year college degree. An additional 8% would prefer their child earn a two-year degree. The remaining 38% said they would prefer their child pursue an option other than higher education.
Let’s look at that 54% and break it down a bit. Gallup slices the group by politics, educational attainment, race, and geography:
Again we see a deep political split, with under half of Republicans and independents – i.e., a majority of Americans – wanting college for their kids, while a solid major of Democrats do. Republicans and independents are also much more excited about non-college alternatives:
We also see higher ed as a self-reinforcing, self-reproducing loop, with adults who have degrees significantly more likely to want more of that for their kids than those without.
Perhaps something similar is happening with geography, as suburbs become more stocked with graduates, while the countryside fails to do so. Note, too, the strong racial breakdown, with black families far ahead of other races (notably absent from the report are Asians, though).
Yet return to the passage we quoted. Just over half of parents would prefer college for their high schools – if there were no limitations! If we assume those limitations include money, that’s a huge finding. Think about the 46% who, even given that huge “if,” would like their children to do something else.
Some of the latter feels like pent-up demand for options:
The study also reveals that while 84% of parents of current students would be “satisfied” to send their child to college or a technical training program, 45% said they wish there were more options available to their child.
That’s nearly one half who want other avenues. What other options might those be? And if they don’t appear, does this mean support for higher ed is not very deeply rooted?
That’s a large number of people who might be interested in new social movements or institutions. Think about new religions, intense political groups, climate change activist groups, and more.
And community college continues to poll badly: “Eight percent of all parents said they would prefer their child attend a two-year or community college over any other pathway, including four-year college…” There’s an interesting racial dynamic there, even a contradiction:
Parents of White children were more than twice as likely to prefer two-year college for their children as parents of Black or Hispanic children. However, national enrollment statistics show that Black and Hispanic undergraduates are more likely to begin their postsecondary education at community colleges than White students.
Remember Gallup’s big “if”, removing all obstacles? They asked parents what those obstacles where. Finance led the way, unsurprisingly. Beyond that – well, things became more complex, when decomposed by race:
There was no statistical difference between the likelihood of Black, Hispanic and White children facing financial barriers to their parent’s ideal postsecondary pathway; however, parents of Black children were twice as likely as parents of White children to say that a lack of information or availability is a barrier to their child.
The preceding describes parental attitudes, the object of the survey. Gallup didn’t poll their children this time, but did find an important detail when asking what kids actually did: “about one-third of children whose parents want them to attend college do not do so.”
I would add to these work-based concerns the possibility of some people avoiding both work and higher education, because they are doing care work at home. Some are full time parents, of course, although that number declines with the number of children. Others are doing elder care, as the senior population grows. How many are devoting time to caring for family members stricken by Long COVID?
Furthermore, how many people have exited both school and the labor market because they’re suffering from Long COVID? Physical and mental debilitation blocks participation in both.
All of the above is only partly prospective. Would-be students are already voting with their feet. After a long enrollment boom from the 1980s through 2012, the number of students taking classes has declined every year. We’re down more than 22% as of spring 2022, according to National Student Clearinghouse data. I offered the peak higher education scenario in 2013 and we’ve been living it every year since. As I’ve said before, if America is still committed to increasing post-secondary experience, we’re failing. It may be that the old consensus of more college for more people is shattering all around us.
There is also the possibility of generational experience having an impact. I’m not a fan of the Strauss-Howe model of strong generational differences and determinism, but it is clear that certain experiences at certain stages of life can have a profound impact. Here I’m thinking of Gen Z, whose life experience includes the 2008 financial disaster, not to mention the 2020 economic spasm. It also includes the highest sticker prices for universities and the highest amounts of student debt. For them the inherited consensus, that higher ed is a ticket to a better life, might not be so convincing as it was for their elders.
If we take all of these ideas and developments together, we can see the “college for all” consensus fraying. If they persist and that consensus falls apart, what might replace it?
3: Signs of an emerging higher ed consensus
What might a new consensus about American college enrollment look like?
I think it would echo some historical attitudes, with some 21st century twists. Higher ed is great and appropriate for certain populations, but not for others. The wealthy and/or highly educated should send their kids to universities. Those who want to pursue degrees requiring advanced degrees (law, medicine, some STEM), ditto. People looking for some STEM jobs (life sciences, engineering; not necessarily computer science) should obtain a BS. Those seeking some technical jobs: an associates’ degree makes sense.
Who shouldn’t go? Those looking ahead to a career which won’t pay well enough to address hefty student loans. Those without a clear future path and the means to explore it through post-secondary schooling. People with an evident aptitude for hands-on trades. People demonstrably gifted in the IT world.
Most of the above assumes Americans think of higher ed in terms of the marketplace. Will we go beyond that mindset and agree that college has important non-career-related benefits? That is, will we support the ways post-secondary schooling expands minds, improves multiple literacies (textual, cultural, digital, etc.), enhances civic engagement, and above all instills critical thinking?
I’m not sure. On the one hand there seems to be broad interests in these desiderata. Perhaps we’ll see the larger neoliberalism consensus shatter and Americans turn to a more community-oriented mentality, a la the New Deal, in which case we’ll support the public (as opposed to private) good of more people going to college. On the other hand, we might not agree that the college experience is the best way to obtain them. I could imagine a chunk of the population arguing that such is the job of K-12 and public libraries, and we should focus on improving those schools instead of sending more people to college. I can also see people wanting us to become more broad-minded, more literate, more civically inclined, more critical through some online… something. (cf people who argue against libraries, because ebooks exist)
We could see a strong political divide. One goes to college as an assertion of progressive or liberal politics, or affiliation with Democrats. Another avoids higher ed to express their conservative/right wing/Republican bona fides. This applies for students. Family members and officials may follow suit in how they advise would-be students to act. “If you really care about social justice, you should go to college.” “If you want to show your support for entrepreneurship, you don’t need that university.” If the political divide worsens into active unrest, violence, or something more dire, identifying college with politics may well become more intense.
We could also see the popular attitude segment still further. If we follow post-2000 gender trends, we might see college as a fitter place for women than for men. Americans’ obsession with crime might lead to arguing against incarcerated people or people who have been convicted of an offense taking classes. Racism could, of course, drive a sense that black people don’t need so much post-secondary experience, perhaps under a “diet racism” cover or perhaps more openly. We could also, on a related note, hear calls for people not to attend college in order to have more children, as the demographic transition continues.
Or, in a popular phrasing:
Tired: college for everyone
Wired: college for some
NB: in case it’s not obvious, I am not endorsing this potential consensus. I am describing it.
4: What does this mean for American higher education?
If that consensus is falling apart, one possibility is that our society continue to divide – socially – by academic experience and attitudes, along other measures. The party divide outlined above is stark and to some extent self-reinforcing. So we could well see the academic population being more Democratic-ish than it is now. Going to college will become an increasingly political act.
If we collectively, unevenly, overall decide that we don’t need more college for more people, that depresses enrollment. Which, of course, depresses revenue for the supermajority of colleges and universities.
Academia would have to try harder to get our story told. That might mean hiring more outreach and communication staff (which can irk those concerned about “administrative bloat”). It might involve supporting faculty and staff acting as public intellectuals, showing the world the strengths of higher education. It would entail better lobbying with state governments and the feds.
Part of that story will be political. Will campuses want to reach out to independents and Republicans, marketing themselves accordingly? Or will others double down on a form of progressive/social justice/Democratic signaling?
Along that line, will campuses focus on the climate crisis in part as a way to win students from a shrinking pool? As the crisis deepens and – hopefully – more people are engaged with it, a college or university’s commitment to climate mitigation and adaptation might be a strong selling point. Taking the opposite view may also win some students.
Summing up: this is one possible future, a scenario or forecast. It might not happen, and I’m thinking of ways for the old consensus to resurrect itself. It may also transpire in forms I didn’t outline here.
If this successor consensus comes to pass, and America throttles back its desire to send ever greater numbers of people to college, it will have deep and extensive implications for higher education.
As always, I write to hear your thoughts. Please comment and reflect.
EDITED TO ADD: Denise Levens wrote many thoughts on this Twitter thread:
Wow, that change in Rep from 2015 to 2019! When I click on the link to your previous article, the data makes sense because we know what was being telegraphed during those years, as your linked article alludes to.
— Denise Levens ☮️ (@DeniseLevens) July 11, 2022
(University of Greenwich photo by Rapid Spin. Thanks to George Lorenzo for conversation – his newsletters are great, like this one. Many thanks to my thoughtful Patreon supporters! Thanks to friends for conversation on Facebook. Thanks, too, to folks on Twitter who answered my question: Susan Blum, Kat Bailey, Karen Costa, Alex Usher, Chelsea O’Brien, CyberGriffin, Vincent Briley, Paul Henley, Zak, Barry Dahl, Cesar, Robert Kelchen, S Barcinas.)