In 2019, the Washington Legislature passed the Workforce Education Investment Act, designed to inject nearly $1 billion into higher education over four years. But even that might not be enough to stem the perfect storm that is swamping American colleges.
Declining birthrates, rising costs, fear of debt, a pandemic and a steady stream of vitriol toward higher education have combined to alter the nature of college in the United States. The long-term results can have negative impacts on our nation’s ability to compete in a global economy, social and economic mobility, and the view of college being a linchpin in the American Dream.
Perhaps most important, the trend can exacerbate the divide between rural areas and urban areas, and coastal states and inland states. We have seen how such a divide impacts everything from our politics to our economy, increasingly creating two separate Americas.
As Kevin Carey writes for Vox.com: “The empty factories and abandoned shopping malls littering the American landscape may soon be joined by ghost colleges, victims of an existential struggle for reinvention, waged against a ticking clock of shrinking student bodies, coming soon to a town near you.”
This fall, 1 million fewer students were enrolled in college than just two years prior. Experts say the decline, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, is the largest in history, even if its pace slowed this year.
“We’re seeing smaller declines. But when you’re in a deep hole, the fact that you’re only digging a tiny bit further is not really good news,” Doug Shapiro of the National Student Clearinghouse told NPR.
Nationally, enrollment in two- and four-year colleges declined 5 percent from spring 2021 to 2022. In Washington, undergraduate enrollment fell 13.5 percent.
The point is not that a college education — or training in a trade or technical field — is a requirement for prosperity. But studies show that the typical college graduate earns 75 percent more over their career than a high school graduate. Declining opportunities have deleterious impacts on the nation.
Locally, we saw that with the closure of Concordia University in Northeast Portland. In February 2020, officials announced that the 115-year-old institution would close following commencement ceremonies two months later. The school had about 1,300 undergraduate students and 500 graduate students at the time.
Other small, private schools likely will meet the same fate in the coming years. National birth rates declined during the Great Recession of 2008-09, leading education experts to refer to an inevitable “enrollment cliff.”
While demographics play a role in the decline, so does the use of higher education as a tool in our cultural divisions. Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill requiring public colleges and universities to survey students and faculty on their ideological beliefs. Lawmakers claimed the goal was to prevent schools from “indoctrinating” students.
In truth, such moves — and pervasive fear of higher education — result from conservative orthodoxy that has turned colleges into the bogeyman. The Florida legislation was part of a series of bills designed to stop “the far-left woke agenda.” Combine those fears, and we have a generation of conservative leaders convincing their supporters that a lack of education is preferable to attending college.
The result: Some states support higher education while developing qualified workers for a 21st century economy, and others use colleges as a wedge issue. We hope that Washington continues to take an enlightened approach.