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How America Started to Fall Out of Love With College Degrees

8 minute read
Anderson is a journalist, author and speaker. She spent 20 years covering finance including 10 at the New York Times before shifting her focus to learning. She is currently working on a book about the science of motivating teens (Crown, 2024).

Back around 2010, soon after the financial crash tanked the economy, Americans unflagging faith in higher education started to falter. By 2011, more than half of college graduates were unemployed or underemployed. If a bachelor’s degree was a golden ticket for some, for many others it wasn’t much.

The economy rebounded and the popular conversation faded, only to be revived again by the epic fallout from a once-in-a lifetime global pandemic. This time, the college degree’s comeuppance has been more profound. It may also be more durable.

In 2019, Americans ranked “preparing for college” tenth on a survey conducted by Populace, a nonpartisan think tank, which asks respondents every year to rank answers to the question ‘what is the purpose of education?’ In 2022, respondents ranked it 47 out of 57 items.

“The value proposition of college may not be what it once was,” says Todd Rose, co-founder of Populace and author of Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions.

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He’s clear that the data don’t say it’s not valuable but rather a prioritization of careers, and the pursuit of meaningful work has surpassed it. People want it to be on the menu, but not to be the menu.

“They want it to be an option, but not the point,” Rose explains. “They want more opportunities, they want their kids to have a wider range of outcomes.”

In 2009, 70% of recent high school graduates enrolled in college. In 2021, that figure was 61.8%, about where it was in 1994. What happened?

In the Populace study, the number one skill for the fourth year in a row was “students develop practical tangible skills” such as managing one’s finances and preparing meals. Other highly-ranked measures included thinking critically to problem solve and make decisions and demonstrating character. Being prepared for a career ranked sixth, up from 27 before the pandemic.

We’ve gone from pursuing the American Dream to pursuing more doing, perhaps because the act of doing different things helps us to better understand what kind of work we want to do. College is a necessary and valuable pathway for many careers; it can help learners expand their worlds and try out different identities in it. It can be transformative for individuals and families, especially first generation college students. And it should be a foregone conclusion that primary and secondary education prepares all students for the option of going to college.

But just as not everyone is cut out to be a pilot, or a plumber, not everyone needs to spend two or four years studying. Students’ interests vary widely, and their flourishing will require more recognition by all of us that human variation is a feature and not a bug. We got to 70% by way of social engineering, not choice. Campaigns extolling higher education as a way to work “smart” rather than working “hard,” with images of a dirty plumber next to a shiny college graduate did not factor in the price of tuition and the time and skills needed to complete a college degree.

There are also structural reasons underpinning our nation’s newfound hunger for skills. An unusually tight labor market means employers are less inclined to require degrees. What started with tech—remember Peter Thiel of PayPal telling everyone to ditch college and become a billionaire like him?—has now spread to reach even the public sector, with Pennsylvania being the latest state to drop the college degree requirement for most state jobs. Harvard Business Review last year estimated that 1.4 million jobs will be available to workers without college degrees in the next five years (“Jobs do not require four-year college degrees. Employers do,” the report says, noting employers are changing their minds.). Even Barack Obama is tweeting about “unnecessary college degrees.” Just under two thirds of Americans do not have a Bachelors’ degree, and many careers don’t require it.

The alternatives now available for learning and training are far richer than they used to be. Before the pandemic Coursera added about two million new learners a quarter; since the pandemic, that’s increased to five million per quarter, with 113 million registered learners. That platform offers courses in everything from computer science to the secrets to happiness; skills and academic training for businesses to offer employees; and degrees. According to internal search data at Google, over 50% of degree searches in 2022 were for nontraditional pathways.

“Degrees are only part of the landscape,” says Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, which educates 4,000 students in its residential campus and 181,000 online. “There are now a broader range of providers and of credentials.”

Too many Americans cannot afford the time it takes to get a degree, or the astronomical price tag of it. Affordability and employment are the top priorities for Americans when it comes to higher education.

The U.S.’s mistake was not in lionizing higher education, which is a noble pursuit, but in stigmatizing the alternatives. In Germany and Switzerland, half to nearly two thirds of students pursue vocational education. Classroom learning does not end, but changes.

If we want to focus on helping young people prepare for meaningful work, we don’t need to declare the college degree dead. Colleges are excellent at developing many of the power skills (formerly known as “soft” skills) that employers want to hire for: including analytical thinking, active learning and complex problem solving. Graduates advance science and build knowledge. And data continue to show that college graduates earn more, are employed at higher rates, and tend to have a stronger sense of identity than those with only a high school degree. A 2016 Pew Research Center report states that 77% of workers with a postgraduate degree and 60% of workers with a bachelor’s degree believe their jobs give them a sense of identity, versus just 38% of those with only a high school diploma or less.

Identity and purpose are not goals to be scoffed at a moment in history when despair and despondency seems the coat we wear too often. But the reality is that there are many ways to build identity and purpose, of which a college degree is one, and many pathways to good earnings, especially when the fastest growing jobs require specialized expertise (vaccine specialist; diversity and inclusion manager, customer marketing manager).

Even if the purpose of a degree is not simply to prepare for work, at the end of four years and tens of thousands of dollars spent, it is imperative students find sustainable work. Too many don’t make it through, and can’t get a good job afterwards.

A staggering 38% of students who start college or university do not finish, leaving them saddled with debt and no degree. The main reasons include costs, stress and uncertainty. One-fifth of college students are parents, and around 40% work, making the balance of work and study tricky. Plenty of people will still flock to university but those universities can certainly better help those who start a degree to finish it. They could also offer a broader range of credentials and in a more compressed time scale.

Rose also argues the data showing better earnings and life satisfaction may be lagging. “Sometimes there’s a pretty important threshold event that changes things pretty fundamentally either about what people want, or the value proposition of the thing.” He believes that threshold event was Covid and that the desire to prepare more thoughtfully for finding and securing meaningful work is a fundamental change in values that will not wane with the job market.

The college landscape may change as the economy does. Periods of high unemployment have typically tracked with higher levels of enrollment in higher ed. According to The Common App, the most common way U.S. students try to get to college, the number of applicants is up 20% for 2023, compared to 2019.

But what COVID offered us beyond a sometimes-unsatisfactory view inside the black box of education was a rethinking of priorities. What’s an education for? If it’s to prepare for meaningful work, and meaningful lives, an arms race toward college, affordable for only the elite, is not a sustainable way forward. Young people are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis, the result of a global pandemic, a burning planet and the ubiquity of brain-addling technology. We should offer them a broader set of opportunities and pathways to realize their future selves—including, but not extolling, the college degree.

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