• Joanne Jacobs

The college blahs

Nearly 70 percent of Massachusetts high school graduates in the Class of 2017 enrolled in college. Five years later, college-going is down to 60 percent. Education leaders are worried

reports Kirk Carapezza for WGBH.


After World War II, the GI Bill put college in reach for veterans.

In Tennessee, less than 53 percent of high school graduates went on to college last year, down 11 percentage points since 2017.


It's happening all over the country: Fewer high school graduates are giving college a try. In particular, lower-income and lower-scoring students are less likely to enroll in community college. These are the students least likely to complete a certificate or degree. Some colleges are offering free tuition to raise enrollment.


The college blahs started before the pandemic, writes Hechinger's Jon Marcus. There were "two and a half million fewer students at colleges and universities by the time that Covid set in than there were in 2012. Another million and a half have disappeared since then."


Surveys and focus groups find "widespread and fast-growing skepticism about the value of a degree, impatience with the time it takes to get one and costs that have finally exceeded many people’s ability or willingness to pay."

Fewer than one in three adults now say a degree is worth the cost, according to a survey by the Strada Education Network.
“That conversation has come up more frequently — ‘Is it worth it?’ ” said Jennifer Kline, a counselor at Festus High School in Festus, Missouri, a state where the proportion of high school graduates going straight to college is down by 6 percentage points since 2017, to 61 percent.

All the talk about forgiving student loan debt has reminded young people "just how much people before them had to borrow to pay for college," and how much trouble it is to pay back those loans, writes Marcus.


Linguist John McWhorter, who started college after two years of high school, wants a radical reconfiguration of workforce and academic education. "The idea that in our society the ordinary trajectory after high school is to attend another four years of school has become arbitrary, purposeless and even absurd."


Fordham's Michael Petrilli wrote about the upside of declining college enrollment on American Compass. Nearly a million students drop out of college each year, primarily because "they were not prepared to succeed in the first place." There is no "college wage premium" for dropouts.

. . . are the nearly one million students who today are not enrolling in college the same million or so students that likely would not have completed a degree anyway? If so, we should be celebrating the fact that they are choosing to do something else with their time and money.
. . . If today’s young people are getting the message the college is just one option among many (and recent surveys indicate that they are), we should celebrate that. Perhaps this is one culture war with an end in sight.

Declining enrollment puts heavy pressure on colleges to change their ways, writes Petrilli. No more cashing tuition checks, collecting Pell Grants and then letting unprepared students flunk out.

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