Why does anyone go to college? The most popular answer given by American college freshmen from 1991 to 2019 was, “To be able to get a better job.” The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, which conducted an annual survey of full-time students at some 200 four-year colleges, routinely found 75 to 85 percent gave that answer, though many also said, “To make more money.” The next most popular answer during those decades was, “To learn more about things that interest me.” Trailing these answers but still widely endorsed was the ambition, “To gain a general education and appreciation of ideas.”
I don’t have access to more recent results but I suspect the students are still saying much the same. Those answers, however, merely scratch the surface. The real reasons, then and now, that students go to college are hidden in a mixture of social expectations, family dynamics, ambitions, emotional longing, and inertia, covered with a veneer of socially acceptable rationalizations.
That mixture is powerful enough to move more than 60 percent of high-school graduates to enroll in college instead of entering the workforce, joining the military, apprenticing for a trade, or dubious options such as idling at home, wandering around, online gaming, or a life of crime.
Going to college still looks to most Americans as a better choice than going to war or a life of dissolution, but recent evidence suggests that students completing high school are beginning to rethink the idea that college is necessarily the best path. “More High-School Grads Forgo College in Hot Labor Market” declares the Wall Street Journal. There’s that, but American higher education—and perhaps education throughout the Anglophone world—is in the midst of a transformation that goes beyond the vagaries of the job market.
By the numbers
Before turning to that transformation, let’s set the scene. In pre-pandemic 2019, 66 percent of American high-school grads (totaling 2.1 million) enrolled in college: 44 percent in four-year colleges and 22 percent in two-year colleges. The pandemic took a chunk out of this. In 2020, 62.7 percent of high-school grads enrolled in college. That decline (66 percent to 62.7 percent) might not seem dramatic but it panicked many colleges and universities.
Then things got worse by not getting better. College enrollment experts expected a quick post-pandemic rebound. Instead, students dropped into a new groove. Only 61.8 percent of 2021 and 62 percent of 2022 high-school grads enrolled in college. The national press registered the tremor. The New York Times reported, “College Enrollment Drops, Even as the Pandemic’s Effects Ebb.” The biggest drop in college enrollment was concentrated in two-year colleges.
Higher Ed Dive, which just released the spring 2023 numbers, offers the supposedly consoling news that “enrollment losses are stabilizing.” That’s the soft way of saying the fire is growing hotter but not as fast as yesterday. In one area, however, enrollments are rising: “shorter-term undergraduate credential” programs, where 2023 enrollments increased by 4.8 percent. That means certificate programs narrowly focused on niche job skills.
Slow fade or quick exit?
The job market, of course, is not the only explanation on offer for higher education’s troubles. Another thread is demography. The 2008 recession prompted a sharp dive in the birth rate, which has only worsened in the years since. One observer emphasized this in a November 2022 essay for Vox titled, “The Incredible Shrinking Future of College.” Others point to the steady rise of online education, which eats away at the foundations of the liberal-arts college. Still others see artificial intelligence as wreaking havoc with the traditional forms of instruction and obliterating the need for college-educated workers in numerous fields. And still others see American higher education tipping into political zealotry and thus losing the confidence of much of the American public.
I draw from my fellow gloom-sayers as need be, all of whom have valuable points. The far-flung empire of some 3,000 US colleges and universities surely faces a severe trial. But what follows is less data analysis than it is cultural observation. I am an anthropologist most interested in the ways that people shape and are shaped by primary institutions, such as the family and education.
We are witnessing the transition from “college is for everybody” to “college is unnecessary and often useless.” Going to college “to be able to get a better job” is likely to fade away as the primary reason students attend. And the institutions themselves—universities and colleges of various types—will have to accept a much less prominent role in our social and economic systems. They are in danger of becoming cultural relics.
To be sure, a large majority of American parents still believe that their children must attain a college degree for their welfare and happiness. Almost always, those parents are applying both their understanding of how the world works and their recollection of their own time in college. College as they knew it was the on-ramp to prosperous adulthood. But that outcome is steadily becoming less likely.
Regardless of what they tell opinion surveys, most students who go to college seek “the experience.” That’s what they will tell you if you actually listen. The experience of college is that careless whole of meeting new people, attending football games, drinking to excess, falling under the spell of a charismatic professor, protesting injustices, meeting still more new people, having deep and meaningful late-night conversations, more parties, feeling you are part of something bigger than your high-school class, discovering life beyond your hometown, meeting yet more new people and forming what will be lasting friendships, falling in love, breaking up, reading some books, pursuing some internships, taking a semester abroad, feeling depressed, getting angry at oppressive structures, feeling smarter than the folks you went to school with, and thinking seriously about what you will do next, and refusing to think seriously about what you will do next.
Of course, that bundle is rife with contradictions, and some students want nothing to do with some of the items. Some won’t drink. Some focus on study rather than sports or parties. Some will pass through college like an arrow aimed directly at a target such as medical school. And all of this will be part of “the experience,” because those who don’t play are stage props for those who do.
My list sounds dismissive because we aren’t used to talking about college as a passage through unstructured late adolescence and early adulthood. It is a time when most of the students will become (more) sexually experienced, and more psychologically friable. Contemporary college is a place that demands students take seriously their supposed quest for “identity” and their responsibilities to those of different “identities.”
It is a place where certain ideologies are so far in ascendency that they cannot be discussed let alone criticized: America’s endemic racism, climate-change catastrophism, and patriarchy lead the list. These should be understood not as systems of belief so much as symptoms of cultural confusion. Contemporary college is so lacking in a coherent intellectual core that anything that students run into that rings of passionate advocacy wins admiration. Black Lives Matter zealotry, transgender raving, antisemitic bloodlust, and postcolonial or indigenous fabulism each attract cultic worshippers who mistake their idols for “critical thinking.” Why not? They have been brought up to believe that “critical thinking” means attacking whatever stands in the way of today’s version of “social justice.”
But this is not to say that contemporary college is best understood as radical indoctrination. Radicalism is definitely present, but it is really just the helium that inflates the balloon of contemporary education. If it weren’t one vapid ideology, it would be another. The balloon itself is the emptiness of a college education.
My portrait of the mainstream is not to be taken as a sketch of just one type of college. Flagship state universities, small public colleges, Ivy League principalities, elite liberal arts colleges, ordinary private colleges, and to some extent even two-year colleges are all part of the great empty balloon of contemporary higher education.
But to say that contemporary higher education is empty of worthy civilizational content and susceptible to ideological substitutes is not to say that it is unappealing. Millions of students still want that “college experience.” But it is losing its luster.
The appetite for the “college experience” may not be about to vanish, but it is running into some unappetizing realities. The first is cost. The price of college, even after “tuition discounting,” has accelerated far beyond the rate of inflation for more than 30 years. My colleague, Neetu Arnold, synthesized the picture in her study, Priced Out. Many students now weigh the prospect of decades of debt against the increasingly specious claim that, in the long run, college will pay for itself. There are too many debt-ridden, underemployed, depressed, and regretful adults around for that sales pitch to work.
Into this picture drops ChatGPT and the spreading realization that many of the jobs that have required the skills supposedly developed in an undergraduate college education will soon be obsolete. Will college teach some other set of equally valuable skills? What will happen when white-collar work is mostly done by artificial intelligence? Even if there is some room left for human intelligence, won’t the entry-level jobs be the first to disappear?
No college has yet come up with convincing answers to these questions. ChatGPT and the other forms of AI that are coming along are not going to replace well-paying jobs in the construction trades nor even not-so-well-paying jobs in the health and beauty industries. Why not get a four-year head start, making a decent wage and building seniority in a field that you can trust will still need you in a few years?
Students also hear from their peers and elder siblings who have gone to college. One thing they learn is that college is increasingly a hostile environment for men. Well, maybe not for men who believe they are women, or men who want to explore their “gender identities” or try on “queerness.” But the percentages of men who actually fit into these categories is pretty small. Women now also have to reckon with a college environment where the percentage of heterosexual males has fallen significantly below the percentage of heterosexual females.
College used to be a place where relationships not infrequently led to marriages. That has been in sharp decline for about 20 years. Schools can propagandize all they want about gender fluidity, but most humans will still feel attracted to one sex or the other, and most will be attracted to the opposite sex. To the extent that colleges and universities confront that reality with an attempt to foster openness and experimentation, they will further undermine the allure of the “college experience.”
Too pricey? Too strange? What else stands in the way of recruiting the next generation of college students? Animus against white and Asian students. A college that demeans students by teaching them they are unfairly “privileged” or deserving of shame for the supposed actions of their ancestors may win today’s social-justice points but rapidly loses its credibility as an institution of higher learning.
The consulting firm Bain & Company’s new report, “The Financially Resilient University,” builds on its 2012 report, “The Financially Sustainable University.” The 2012 study warned that many colleges and universities were on a financially “unsustainable” path as “spending continued to outpace revenue.” This proved accurate. Higher Ed Dive maintains a list by year of colleges that closed for good. But during the pandemic, the federal government intervened and deluged colleges and universities with new money.
The National Association of Scholars argued that any federal bailout should depend on colleges and universities retrenching their over-extended bureaucracies. Exactly the opposite happened. In the early days of the shutdown, the federal government awarded $12.5 billion in emergency payments to colleges and universities as part of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. The higher-education lobby screamed, “Not enough!” In 2021, the Stimulus Bill awarded another $40 billion to higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education adds in some other bailout funding to come up with a total of $76 billion. How did higher education respond to this taxpayer largess?
Colleges and universities went on a spree of hiring thousands of new diversity-equity-inclusion administrators. Now the COVID money is gone, and much of it was spent on these frivolous hires. But the expanded payroll remains. Colleges and universities, of course, claim the COVID funds were put to better purposes but these claims are mere window dressing.
Bain’s new report finds that “less than 40 percent of large public universities have strong financial resilience, a share expected to decline in the next three years.” Moreover, in the next three years, colleges in a “precarious financial position” will nearly double. There simply won’t be enough students to go around.
I am not sure if the economic catastrophe of 2008 fully explains the failure of Americans to reproduce. Fertility rates also reflect cultural confidence, which has been in sharp decline as well.
Colleges have responded to the dearth of domestic students by trying to recruit more international students and by trying to enroll students from American minorities who are “underrepresented.” International students, nearly half of whom are from China, are arriving in fewer numbers and are rightly encountering increased skepticism on the part of American authorities, since the discovery that a significant number have ties to the CCP or People’s Liberation Army-affiliated institutions. In 2020, President Trump signed a ban on Chinese graduate students with military ties, which one expert said would cut short the studies of 3,000 to 4,000 students. China’s record of infiltrating Western universities, including Australian institutions, has long worried government officials, but there are no reliable estimates of what portion of Chinese international students are in fact intelligence operatives.
As for recruiting students from underrepresented groups, all too often this has come at expense of academic standards as the case histories in the current Supreme Court cases involving Harvard and the University of North Carolina attest. Many of us predict that if the Supreme Court strikes down or severely limits the “diversity” doctrine, colleges and universities will quickly switch to subterfuges to maintain their regimes of racial preference. Further deterioration of academic standards is plausible, and it is another obstacle to higher education retaining its status as the best path to prosperity.
Perhaps academic standards have little to do with the success of a college in placing students on good career paths. The “college experience” may be just as valuable a filter to workplace success. But that leads to other perplexities.
The progressive workforce
We have seen conspicuous examples of well-educated, “college-experienced” individuals who have brought their college views to the corporate workplace with less than happy results. Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of marketing for Bud Light, Alissa Heinerscheid, is a graduate of Harvard, where she received a BA in English, and the Wharton School where she earned her MBA. Explaining her decision to use transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney to promote Bud Light, she sounded like a diversity dean intoning the latest riffs on identity. She hoped, she said, “to evolve and elevate” the beer to mean “inclusivity,” true to the principle that “representation is at the heart of evolution.”
Disney, Target, Apple, Ford, and myriad other companies have their counterparts of Heinerscheid; graduates of “good” colleges who speak fluent “inclusivity” and yet have a tenuous grasp of their own society. The fabled aloofness of the university as an ivory tower cut off from the concerns of ordinary people has gone by the boards. We now have an institution dedicated to turning its students into missionaries of its vision of how ordinary people should live, and using American commerce as the tool to impose this vision on an unwilling populace.
Americans increasingly understand that the font of this new misery is the university, which has become an institution that regards their habits, preferences, and ideas—their culture—with disdain. There is a “status rebellion” brewing in which higher education will be the loser. An institution disdainful of the nation and even of the ideal of nationhood is not well-positioned to thrive. Much as it may emphasize that its students are “citizens of the world,” it depends on the support of actual citizens who are not amused by the idea that their country is just a construct, and one that oppresses some and privileges others.
This estrangement between higher education and the American people isn’t going to fade away merely because many colleges and universities face financial stringency. The colleges may be forced to relent a little on hiring DEI staff, but most college presidents are determined to stick with their progressive priorities, no matter that this commitment has opened up a chasm between campus culture and American culture. As the college presidents see it, the chasm signifies the moral and intellectual superiority of the campus. What looks to the public like insularity, looks to higher education’s leadership class like well-earned status.
The members of the public on the other side of this chasm are still willing to consider college as the surest path to a career, but they are growing skeptical. That skepticism, however, turns into outright disaffection when they ponder how our colleges and universities often foster what is worst in young people: ingratitude to their families and their nation, self-centeredness, and aimless alienation. Colleges ignite group resentment, unwarranted pride, or equally unwarranted shame. And the education that colleges provide has been hollowed to near pointlessness. Students graduate with a veneer of knowledge rather than a core. An increasingly obsolescent institution has wedded itself to an increasingly noisome cultural stance.
The braver students are already finding viable alternatives to college. More and more will follow. A substantial number of Americans now look at college as something that menaces the psychological wellbeing of their children. If they send their sons and daughters to college, it is with well-warranted apprehension, and because they cannot yet think of what else to do.