Marked Absent

Kyle McIntosh

THE NATIONAL STUDENT Clearinghouse Research Center recently published a report on postsecondary enrollment for fall 2021, including enrollment at community colleges, undergraduate institutions and graduate schools.

If you’re a believer in postsecondary education, the headline numbers weren’t encouraging. Enrollment fell by 2.7%, or 476,100 students. Over the two years since the start of the pandemic, it’s declined by 5.1%, or 937,500 students.

While the report offers no reasons for these declines, my view is that colleges are struggling to justify their value proposition to students and their families, especially during a pandemic that’s disrupted in-person learning. As I’ve noted before, college costs are extremely high, creating a significant financial burden for just about any family.

Why should a family take on six figures of debt when a student can earn a good wage at age 18? A manufacturing company near me is offering entry-level workers more than $20 an hour, plus training and benefits. Only a high school degree—or its equivalent—is required. With opportunities like that available, it can be hard to justify the cost of college.

This may be the reason behind the big drop in liberal arts majors. The number of liberal arts majors at four-year institutions fell by 78,774 students, or 7.6%, in fall 2021. By contrast, those majoring in computer and information sciences increased 1.3%, and that followed gains of 5.6% and 4.5% in the prior two years.

It appears some students have decided they need to graduate with solid technical skills to justify their tuition bill. Over the next several years, I believe we’ll continue to see students shift to majors that should lead them to lucrative careers. I also suspect many universities—especially private ones—will revise their pricing and course offerings to make themselves more compelling to students.

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