With skyrocketing costs and plummeting results, higher education has been in trouble for some time. Now, recent enrollment data suggests that the college bubble might finally be popping.
Student bodies are in decline across the country, and somewhat drastically. The spring of 2017 hosted 2.4 million fewer students nationwide than did the fall of 2011, or an approximately 12 percent decrease in six years. Continued reductions in enrollment will hit the smallest, and by extension most vulnerable, colleges the hardest. But there is little even the nation’s largest colleges and universities can do at this point, as public perception of a degree’s value has created a cost/benefit crisis that, given plausible future trends, may be impossible to reverse.
A Wall Street Journal poll from last September revealed Americans to be essentially split (49 percent to 47 percent) on whether a college degree is worth the cost. A CNBC poll just four years prior was much kinder, with a 13 percent differential in favor of earning a degree.
Just as low confidence in companies and products can affect stocks, the declining belief that a college degree is a first-class ticket to prosperity will likewise hurt higher education’s marketability. By extension, this will boost the marketability of alternative forms of education such as trade schools.
Such alternatives are immensely cheaper. An entire trade education can be acquired for what some traditional colleges charge for a single year, and post-graduation salaries are becoming more and more competitive. In an age when even white-collar jobs are at increasing risk of automation, the less expensive option may well be the safer gamble.
Even Barack Obama, whose academic career was long lauded as evidence of his qualifications as president, has gone on the record extolling the virtue of trade schools and dispelling the long-held belief that college is for everyone. California, home to the unrivaled pretentiousness of Silicon Valley and academic heavyweights such as Caltech and Stanford, has elected to invest more than $200 million to market trade schools.