“We think that others and ourselves need to be asking some pretty hard questions about why this might have happened,” said American Council on Education’s Terry Hartle, who co-wrote a report on the declining enrollment rates, to The Washington Post last November. “This information cries for more analysis.”
In some ways, the high-school graduates who head straight into the labor market are the most practical among diploma recipients. The Atlantic’s Gillian White has pointed out that the types of institutions seeing the most significant declines in enrollment tend to offer degrees that provide only marginal improvements in job prospects compared to high-school diplomas. Today, the popularity of a given degree and its return on investment are often “almost inversely related,” said Anthony Carnevale, who directs Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The high-school graduates who tend to forgo college and make it in the economy, Carnevale added, are also the ones who can land jobs that aren’t traditionally associated with higher-education degrees—blue-collar fields such as manufacturing, mining, and agriculture. Carnevale said there are only a few ways to beat the college wage premium—the income advantage of having a college degree—“and generally the only people who beat this game are boys.” In blue-collar jobs, “you can work your way up, learn on the job. But there’s none of that for females. Basically, there’s no real pathway for girls out of high school [except college].” No wonder women account for a majority of today’s college-degree-holders. “When enrollments go down, the first thing you lose are the boys.”
The College Scorecard, which Obama unveiled last September, uses troves of institutional data to improve transparency about the country’s colleges and universities; users can sort results based on various metrics, such as the percent of students who earn above high-school graduates or the average salary after attending. But as Carnevale argued, it’s “more symbolic than real.” It gives users access to federal data on graduation rates and attendance-cost figures at thousands of colleges and universities, but it doesn’t break that data down by area of study. For example, if I were to search for “Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs” at four-year private universities, the results on graduation rates and salary outcomes would only reflect students who attended the school at large—not the communications or journalism graduates specifically. Yet, for the most part, a person’s major is, as a Brookings paper concluded last year, “likely a much more important driver of salaries than the overall institution.” In fact, close to a third of Americans with associate’s degrees—30 percent—earn more than those with bachelor’s degrees, according to research done by the Georgetown workforce center.
The growing mismatch between rates for high-school graduation and college attendance in the U.S. may largely have to do with the challenges with outreach and resources faced by community colleges, which often struggle to provide support to students. “Most people would say higher education is not connected to the economy, which is not true,” Carnevale said. “The higher-ed curriculum is very oriented toward the economy (with some obvious exceptions)—it’s just not connected strongly enough, as a counseling and career-planning system.”
There is “this information problem, this confusion, the Tower of Babel that you face when you’re looking at the economy and higher education,” he continued. “You’re young; you don’t want to take out loans … People are pretty much just wandering around between youth dependency and adult dependence.” And ultimately, even high-school graduation rates are falling short of expectations. This year marked the first time in a while that the country stumbled on its way to reaching a 90-percent graduation rate by 2020.