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Slower economic growth. Continued labor shortages. Lower life expectancy. Higher levels of divorce. More demand for social services, but less tax revenue to pay for it.

A sharp and persistent decline in the number of Americans going to college — down by nearly a million since the start of the pandemic, according to newly released figures, and by nearly three million over the last decade — could alter American society for the worse, even as economic rival nations such as China vastly increase university enrollment, researchers who study this warn.

“It is a crisis, and I don’t think it’s widely recognized yet that it is,” said Jason Lane, dean of Miami University’s College of Education, Health and Society.

The reasons for the drop in college-going have been widely discussed — declining birth rates, the widespread immediate availability of jobs, greater public skepticism of the need for higher education — but the potential long-term effects of it have gotten less attention.

The United States has fallen from third to 12th since 2000 among the 38 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in the proportion of its population aged 25 to 34 with university degrees. Credit: Ben Smith for The Hechinger Report

People without education past high school earn significantly less than classmates who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees and are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to be employed. They’re more prone to depression, live shorter lives, need more government assistance, pay less in taxes, divorce more frequently and vote and volunteer less often.

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, and there will be lower tax revenues because there won’t be as many people in high-paying jobs. It will be harder for innovation to occur.”

The growing gap in educational attainment could also worsen existing divisions over politics, socioeconomic status, race and national origin, said Adriana Lleras-Muney, an economist at UCLA.

Related: How a decline in community college students is a big problem for the economy

“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.”

Among those most affected: children from low-income families, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which reports “unprecedented” declines in the number of students from high-poverty and low-income high schools who immediately go on to higher education.

“The gains that we made in reducing class-based and racial inequality are being wiped away,” said Awilda Rodriguez, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education.

“It is a crisis, and I don’t think it’s widely recognized yet that it is.”

Jason Lane, dean, Miami University College of Education, Health and Society

Men in particular have disproportionately stopped going to college; undergraduate enrollment of men is down by more than 10 percent since the start of the pandemic.

“What does that mean for the modern American family? There are implications here that just go miles and miles and miles,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

“We have a million adults in this country that have stepped off the path to the middle class. That’s the real headline,” Sullivan said. “This will be viewed as one of the great disruptions, not just because of the pandemic, but because of the economic, the social and the health-related implications.”

High school graduates who don’t go further in their educations earn a median of $24,900 a year less during their working lives than people with bachelor’s degrees, the College Board calculates.

They are nearly 40 percent more likely to be unemployed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, and nearly four times more likely to be living in poverty, according to the Pew Research Center. They’re also more susceptible to economic downturns. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, people without degrees were three times more likely to have lost their jobs than people with them, Pew says.

Related: Colleges face reckoning as plummeting birthrate worsens enrollment declines

Because they earn less, people whose formal education ends with high school pay 45 percent less in local, state and federal taxes than people with bachelor’s degrees, according to the College Board.

Yet they require greater social services. High school graduates who don’t go on to college are two and a half times more likely than those with bachelor’s degrees to receive Medicaid benefits, four times more likely to get food stamps and four times more likely to need public housing, the College Board finds, while their kids are three times more likely to qualify for free school lunches.

People without college educations also are less likely to vote than people with them, according to the Census Bureau; half as likely to volunteer, the College Board says; and more likely to divorce, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics; almost half of married couples with less education split up, compared to 30 percent who are college graduates.

“We have a million adults in this country that have stepped off the path to the middle class. That’s the real headline.”

Monty Sullivan, president, Louisiana Community and Technical College System

Various studies have found that people without college educations even die younger than people with them, by from five to 12 years, depending on the study. In fact, life expectancy has increased since 2010 for people who went to college even as it’s declined for those who didn’t, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and others.

“These life-expectancy gaps are just going to get even larger than they already are,” said Lleras-Muney, who studies the connection between education and health. “We might not see that for a while because the cohorts that are graduating now are not going to start dying in significant numbers for another 40 or 50 years. But we will see people being in worse health,” putting added strain on the health care system.

Related: Racial gaps in college degrees are widening, just when states need them to narrow

Higher death rates for less well-educated Americans in the 2010s were in part the result of smoking, drug and alcohol use and suicide, the researchers found; among other things, people with only high school diplomas are nearly four times more likely to smoke than college graduates, according to the College Board, and researchers at the universities of Texas and South Carolina find they have a higher incidence of depression.

All of these things are raising alarm about the broader impact of falling college enrollment on society and the economy.

Fewer college graduates mean not enough workers to fill high-paying jobs being left by fast-retiring baby boomers, for instance.

“There will be fewer jobs that people can get with just a high school diploma, so this will be an issue as more and more jobs require a college degree but fewer and fewer students go to college,” said Jennifer Ma, senior policy research scientist at the College Board, who called the pandemic enrollment drop “a really scary number.”

That means current-day labor shortages and logistics interruptions may be harbingers of things to come, said Lane, of Miami University.

“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,” he said. “But what happens when we don’t have enough people studying to be teachers, or to be nurses?”

Lower earnings also mean less consumer spending, which translates to slower growth and affects the broader standard of living.

A lone student on a university campus. The number of students enrolled at colleges and universities has declined by nearly a million since the start of the pandemic. Credit: Camilla Forte/ The Hechinger Report

America’s college and university enrollment decline is taking place against a backdrop of aggressive investment in higher education by international economic rivals such as China.

The United States has fallen from third to 12th since 2000 among the 38 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in the proportion of its population age 25 to 34 with degrees, behind Canada, Korea, Russia, and others.

If Americans keep choosing not to go to college, “the U.S. will continue its slide,” said Jamil Salmi, a global higher education expert and former higher education coordinator at the World Bank. “It may make other economies more attractive. We might see firms relocating to those countries.”

Related: From Google ads to NFL sponsorships: Colleges throw billions at marketing themselves to attract students

Although it’s still well behind the United States in the proportion of its population with degrees, China has boosted its university enrollment six-fold since 2000, to about 45 million, according to World Education Services, a nonprofit that evaluates international educational credentials.

Chinese scholars have already surpassed their American counterparts in the number of research papers they publish, the National Science Foundation says, though the U.S. still does better when measured by the frequency with which those papers are cited.

Chinese universities produce more Ph.D.s in science, engineering, technology and math, an analysis by the Georgetown University Center for Security and Emerging Technology found; by 2025, it says, China will be turning out nearly twice as many graduates with doctorates in those fields than American universities will.

“The gains that we made in reducing class-based and racial inequality are being wiped away.”

Awilda Rodriguez, associate professor, University of Michigan Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education

One upside, some policymakers said, is that a smaller supply of people with degrees will accelerate the budding practice by employers of considering job and life experience instead.

“That’s something companies are already becoming much more focused on — what skills does someone have versus what piece of paper do they have,” Sullivan said.

Already, more listings for jobs that pay above the national median wage are accepting applicants with less than bachelor’s degrees, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found.

Related: Credential chaos: Growing “maze” of education credentials is confusing consumers and employers

Which is more bad news for the sector that’s affected most immediately by the enrollment decline: the $632 billion higher education industry, which employs four million people, according to federal government statistics, and is on many campuses struggling to fill seats.

That could force the sector to do more to lower barriers that prevent prospective students — especially lower-income ones — from getting to and through college, Rodriguez said.

“We could be on the precipice of being pushed to thinking about how higher education could be more accessible — more equitable,” Rodriguez said.

“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.”

This story about low college enrollment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

Letters to the Editor

5 Letters

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  1. Interesting that in many of the discussions of higher education the word ‘education’ is rarely mentioned.

    Once attending college was not necessarily about getting a higher paying job. It was about broadening the mind, learning how to learn, exploring topics that one would never stumble across otherwise. It taught students how to put together ideas into sentences and paragraphs, to understand a larger world than their city or town, how to conceive solutions to problems and implement them. An education inspired self confidence and a sense of achievement as a reward in itself. A side effect was a highly trained, thinking group of individuals who filled the need for a work force to drive the build-up of an ever more technologically complex world. This side effect was recognized as desirable and drove the push for the State Colleges, which were intended to provide affordable higher education for blue collar families. This they did until the 1980’s. At that point the agenda changed. No longer about affordably ‘educating’ people universities were instructed to train a workforce for corporate America and to earn their keep while doing it.

    Swiftly the face of the state schools began to change. The basic classrooms and dormitories were scraped in favor of the country club image. Climbing walls, golf courses and swimming pools were required to justify charging more money and to attract an ever growing stream of ‘customers’. Tuition increases were implemented accordingly every semester. Unfortunately, the quality of the ‘education’ did not keep pace with the increases. Administrators replaced academics, new buildings replaced content and the student became a consumer.

    It seems this corporatization of higher education has almost come full cycle. As life-time jobs in a chosen field dwindle to nil, as AI replaces humanity in almost all the technological fields, slim pickings are left for the masses of graduates in the ‘job’ market. Instead of a high paying job most graduates have nothing to look forward to but debt.
    I often wonder if the quality of the education I received forty years ago at one tenth the price is only one tenth as good as the one I would receive today. I seriously doubt it. Unfortunately, today’s students are coming to the same conclusion.

  2. While I agree with the statistics confirming that having a college degree historically has generally resulted in a better salary than graduates without college degrees, yet all too frequently it has resulted in lifelong debt for too many of those college graduates. (Not to mention, college debt accumulated by those that attended more for the college experience than for academics; or by those that attempted but failed at completing their college degree.)
    And while I agree that students signed for such debt should be responsible and pay it back; I also find it less than helpful to charge more interest on student loans than what one would pay on a car loan or mortgage. I do not understand why interest rates for student loans cannot be charged at a very low interest rate as well as provided as a credit or tax deduction on one’s income taxes (whichever provides a better result for the student.) There should be additional options provided which does not make an individual financially indentured and worse off for having chosen to attend college.

  3. Education is the key to getting out of poverty and exiting the ghettos and barrios for the low economic and minority groups. It gives them a key to creating opportunities to evolve personally and gain respect and dignity for themselves. The pandemic has curtailed the growth of attending college for these groups and it will take a long time to get back to get into a growth pattern again. Counseling and mentoring are the key to helping motivate these students to see the real value of a college education and that there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel if they make the effort.

  4. You presented quite a bit of correlational data was presented in this article. Much of it may be misleading. The connection between higher education and a person’s positive life outcomes may have more to do with a person’s family background. People from higher SES families attain favorable jobs and disproportionately finish college. Those from lower SES families struggle regardless of their education. International statistics on Intergenerational Mobility show that an American’s income depends on that of their parents and grandparents more than in most other advanced countries.

    Decreasing college enrollments will not necessarily retard or decrease national income. A nation’s level of education is not related to a nation’s income as shown by economists like Eric A Hanushek. Increasing spending on higher education is a waste of resources.

    America can afford to have fewer college admissions. About 50% of all students admitted to college do not complete within six years and 41% of all college graduates do not work in a job that requires a college degree according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Many students are stuck with college debt and lose years of potential income without realizing the benefits of having a college level job. These are more likely to include students from low SES families. We do not need to increase the number of students who enter college. We need to increase the percentage of students who finish college and get college level jobs.

    All education spending is under pressure in the United States today. To best help children from SES families, we must be careful how education resources are allocated. Children from low SES families are not likely to be helped by increasing college admissions. Research shows that these children would be most helped by expanding early childhood education and by increasing counseling services for these students in Secondary Schools and Colleges to assure they finish college and find suitable employment after college. Decreasing the number of colleges and college programs would free up resources for these more cost effective educational priorities.

  5. Interesting that you want to talk about all the things not having a degree can lead to, but not at all about why people aren’t getting degrees anymore. Is this just an ad to try to scare people back into the classroom? All despite how ridiculous the costs are and how that keeps rising (along with the basic cost of living)? Perhaps you could write about the problems and solutions, next time. Otherwise, what is the point of this “report”?

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