www.washingtonpost.com /opinions/2023/04/19/declining-college-enrollment-value/

As enrollment plummets, academia gets schooled about where it went wrong

George F. Will 6-7 minutes 4/19/2023

’Tis the season to be euphoric, or crestfallen, as young Americans receive notifications from colleges and universities of acceptance or rejection to be members of this or that institution’s Class of 2027. Never mind the spoilsport who defines college as “those magical seven years between high school and your first warehouse job.” And disregard the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s data showing that 38 percent of recent college graduates, and one-third of all college graduates, hold jobs that do not require a college degree.

But ponder this recent headline: “College Enrollment is Down — But There’s a Silver Lining.” Actually, that decline is a silver lining of the dark cloud hovering over today’s politicized, hysterical and administratively bloated academia.

Covid-19 intensified a trend, underway for a decade before the pandemic, of college enrollments declining about 1 percent a year. And an ancillary benefit of today’s sizzling job market is that many young people are beginning useful careers. This, instead of slouching, bored and sullen, at the back of lecture halls not to acquire knowledge or even marketable skills but a bachelor’s degree, a credential of increasingly dubious value.

Beginning in the 1980s, the “college wage premium” soared: In the 1970s, university graduates were earning on average 35 percent more than high school graduates; by 2001 the premium had reached 66 percent. Today, however, with student debt at more than $1.7 trillion and the graduation rate at four-year institutions down to 60 percent, a Wall Street Journal-NORC poll finds that 56 percent of American adults consider college not worth the cost, which has raced ahead of inflation for decades.

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Still, universities continue to churn out a supply of PhDs far exceeding the academic market’s demand for them. About 70 percent of all professors are not in tenure-track positions. Only 27 percent of those who received history PhDs in 2017 were in tenure-track jobs in 2021.

Women, who now are 57 percent of college students, can no longer drive revenue growth, as they did for several decades. Chinese students were until recently a reliable and important source of undergraduates eager to pay full tuition. So, who will fund academia’s faculties and the rapidly metastasizing administrative bureaucracies?

Another reason for colleges to fear is a belated response to a 1971 Supreme Court decision. “Credentialism” — the pursuit of empty academic validations — surged when the court unanimously struck down a corporation’s employment test as “fair in form, but discriminatory in operation,” because it had what has come to be called “disparate impact” on minorities. Rather than risk liability by relying on standardized tests, many employers began requiring applicants to have expensive, time-consuming college degrees. Sixty-two percent of employers still require a college degree even for entry-level jobs.

But after half a century, sensible people are having second thoughts. For example, the first official act of Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, after taking office in January was to open 65,000 government jobs to people without a college degree. Alaska, Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina and Utah have implemented similar policies; Georgia might be next. Delta Air Lines no longer requires pilots to have a bachelor’s degree.

This probably will accelerate enrollment declines, unless not-very-selective colleges (most colleges) will further lower academic standards. Or they will intensify efforts to attract customers (as students are considered) by making the “student experience” more enticing — fancier dorms, better football, Mongolian barbecues in the food courts, etc.

There are powerful, immediate financial incentives to study, say, computer science rather than Victorian literature, but economic incentives only partially explain today’s flight from the humanities. Why study history when it is presented as a prolonged indictment — ax-grinding about the past’s failure to be as progressive as today’s professors? Who wants a literature major that is mostly about abstruse literary theories — “deconstruction,” etc.?

Recently the New Yorker magazine disturbed the academic pond with writer Nathan Heller’s 10,232-word attempt to explain plummeting enrollments in humanities classes and majors (“The End of the English Major”). Heller’s nuanced investigation suggests various explanations, including this:

Time was, Heller says, a student might have studied Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” for its “form, references, style, and special marks of authorial genius.” But now a student “might write a paper about how the text enacts a tension by both constructing and subtly undermining the imperial patriarchy through its descriptions of landscape.” Heller adds: “What does this have to do with how most humans read?”

Nothing. But it has everything to do with the saturation of academia with progressive politics. Which explains this: Almost three-quarters of Democrats think colleges have a positive impact on the nation; 37 percent of Republicans do.

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