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College enrollment declines can be reversed

The Brookings Institution just published a piece on reversing college enrollment declines. It quoted a March poll published in the Wall Street Journal that found most adult Americans (56%) believe the benefit of a college education is not worth the cost. That’s an increase of 16% from a decade ago.

So, it should come as no surprise that 55% of recent high school graduates have no plans to enroll (or do not enroll) in college immediately. (In fact, most of this cohort never do.) Recently, my own analysis of university and community college enrollment in Michigan since 2007 found that our post-secondary institutions are operating at nearly a quarter-million students under capacity.

The enticements to return to the classroom have had only a small effect on enrollment. At some schools, the declines have fully offset the enrollment attributable to these programs.

The fundamentals of capitalism tell us that when a product is in demand, the seller controls the price. Conversely, in the absence of demand, there are few takers at any price. If the rules of supply and demand apply to higher education institutions, we have a lot of supply and very limited demand.

The supply-and-demand model is not fully accurate here because the cost of a college education isn’t the only decision input. A major factor in the decision to enroll (or not) has nothing to do with what a person has to put into the equation. Rather, it’s what the person gets out of the effort. If a person wants to work in a high-demand field that has a high education requirement but also has a high annual salary (engineering, medicine, law, etc) those people can justify the cost because the benefit is substantially higher.

College enrollment problem has a solution

If a person wants to work in a field with high education requirements but a comparatively low salary (teaching, social work, library science), that equation may no longer balance out. According to salary data collected by ZipRecruiter, the average salary offered to a candidate with a two year degree varies nationally by less than $10,000, regardless of location or the number of years of experience.

“The average pay range for an Associate Degree job varies little (about $9,500), which suggests that regardless of location, there are not many opportunities for increased pay or advancement, even with several years of experience.”

Michigan is 32nd of 50 states in terms of annual salary for people with associate degrees. Why would anyone (anywhere) want to take a job with poor pay and no advancement potential, even when they have years of experience?

Community college enrollment will improve when community colleges start offering degree programs that enable workers to earn a living wage and achieve economic mobility.

It’s really just that simple.

Photo Credit: Thomas Galvez, via Flickr