Dr. Matt Albert

Has College Become Both Out of Reach and Out of Touch?

Is college still the key to the American dream? Parents should start to seriously consider other paths for their kids.

“How did college go from being the doorway to the American dream to the nightmare of starting adult life deep in debt, unsure of whether your degree will help you get a job that even pays enough to pay off that debt?”

That’s how Terry Gross opened a recent episode of Fresh Air, entitled, College is increasingly out of reach for many students. What went wrong?

In the past twenty years or so, such a program would have shocked me and my well-intentioned colleagues. Those of us working in public education, and specifically with underserved populations, had three words constantly on our minds and on our tongues: College. College. College.

Boy how times have changed! Several factors seem to be merging into a tidal wave of new perceptions around how people are thinking about college, work, and their futures.

First, the pandemic altered how people think in ways we probably don’t fully understand yet. Labor markets are in disarray, the economy is unrecognizable in many ways, and people are emerging from unprecedented states of trauma and unease. I’m no economist, but it doesn’t require an MBA to realize these are not normal times.

Second, and I’m not entirely sure how to phrase this, but it seems like Gen Z isn’t having it. What I mean is that Generation Z isn’t going the way of their parents just because things have “always been that way.” As opposed to the entitlement narrative we Gen Xers love to pin on Millenials, it’s looking more and more like Gen Zers have their own ideas about how they want to remake the world into something they see as sustainable – and it doesn’t look much like anything we’ve seen in the past.

And that brings us to the issue of college.

A recent study by American Student Assistance and Jobs for the Future called Degrees of Risk: What Gen Z and Employers Think About Education-to-Career Pathways…and How Those Views are Changing should make us all sit up and pay attention.

To start, there has been a well-reported and significant decline in college attendance going back even before the pandemic started. In fact, there has been an enrollment decrease of 1.4 million students in undergraduate degree programs since the start of the pandemic with no sign of slowing down. The decline continued to be sharp even as the effects of the pandemic started to ease, as there was a drop of 662,000 students from the spring of 2021 to the spring of 2022. That’s a 4.7% decline.

The enrollment decline comes alongside an attitude shift among young people who are growing increasingly skeptical of the traditional college path. Surveys of current high school students are showing a dramatic 20% decrease in the likelihood of attending a four-year college in the past year alone. In fact, young people aren’t the only ones with shifting perceptions about college. A recent survey by the New America Foundation called, Varying degrees 2022, showed that just over half of Americans (55 percent) believe that colleges and universities are leading America in a positive direction. The proportion of Americans who feel positively about the impact of colleges and universities has dropped by 14 percentage points since 2020.

Combine these downward trends in how people are thinking with what’s happening in today’s labor market and it’s not difficult to see that there are some dramatic changes coming. For instance, nearly half (47%) of businesses say they have jobs they simply cannot fill. There are roughly 11.4 million unfilled positions in the U.S. today, many of which do not require a college degree. At the same time, far fewer employers are seeing a meaningful relationship between a college degree and competency, and some 81% of employers believe that organizations should hire based on skills rather than degrees. It’s becoming more and more clear that today’s workplaces require skills that are not necessarily being delivered through traditional higher education programs and workers who are not necessarily arriving in roles through traditional hiring practices.

So what does that mean for parents? What are the options? It takes some research and persistence, but there are interesting alternatives out there. It is also going to require an attitude shift among many parents and teens as it relates to what’s considered an “acceptable” post-secondary pathway.

It’s time for parents and teens to seriously consider training, apprenticeships, and certifications that lead directly to good jobs and fulfilling careers. These programs are out there and are growing. In subsequent blogs, I will begin to highlight some of these programs and individuals who are trying to address the growing desire for alternate options.

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