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EDITORIAL: There's a crisis in higher education, and the colleges are largely to blame

York Dispatch
  • Unduplicated enrollment has dropped below 18 million nationally.
  • Penn State York's enrollment fell 25% from 2015 to 2019.
  • York College saw 5% fewer freshmen enroll in fall 2019 compared to fall 2017.
Nearly 300 students receive their degrees during the York College Winter Commencement, Wednesday, December 18, 2019. York College saw 5% fewer freshmen enroll in fall 2019 compared with fall 2017.
John A. Pavoncello photo

There’s a crisis in higher education.

There’s no doubt about that. Each year, fewer students are enrolling in college.

A recent story in The York Dispatch detailed some statistics that have to leave college administrators frightened to their core.

College enrollment now lowest in a decade, affecting York County campuses

Enrollment decline has been a reality for a number of years, but a report last month showed the situation is growing more dire. For the first time in a decade, unduplicated enrollment — meaning students who were not counted more than once for applying to multiple schools — dropped below 18 million nationally.

Locally, Penn State York accepted 120 fewer students in 2019 than in the year prior, and overall enrollment fell 25% from 2015 to 2019. York College saw 5% fewer freshmen enroll in fall 2019 compared with fall 2017.

Less bang for the buck: The cause of the crisis, however, is a matter of great debate. Many factors are blamed.

A declining number of high school graduates and a strong economy are often cited as root causes.

While they may be contributing to the crisis, they don’t get to the heart of the matter.

The biggest issue is simply this: Middle-class families are deciding that a college education doesn’t provide the bang for the buck that it once did.

For the baby boomers generation, a college education was a no-brainer. The cost was relatively low and the benefits were generally high. They could leave college with a relatively small amount of debt and embark on careers that would provide a lifetime of higher earnings.

That is no longer the case.

Raising tuition and creating debt: Over the past few decades, colleges consistently raised tuition at a rate far above the inflation rate. As tuition rose, so did the college debt that faced students after they graduated.

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, the college crisis really began to take hold. College graduates entered a workforce with precious few jobs, while carrying a huge amount of debt. As a result, more and more college grads ended up working as baristas and living in their parents’ basements.

The longtime argument that a college education would pay off in higher career earnings was no longer consistently valid.

The fault for this crisis resides largely with the colleges. Year after year, no matter the economic conditions, raising tuition always seemed to be the default position. For administrators living in their proverbial ivory towers, cutting costs never seemed to be an option.

Anyone who has ever attended college can tell you that there is plenty of fat that could be slashed without having a negative impact on the education of the students.

College no longer such a good bet: Now, the decisions to consistently raise tuition rates have finally come back to haunt the colleges.

As the economy rebounded from the Great Recession, parents came to realization that their kids could get a job straight out of high school without piling up a college debt north of $100,000. Yes, the jobs would likely not come with great paychecks, but a little hard work, and maybe some technical education, could provide the chance for advancement and better wages. That option suddenly seemed like a better bet than a college degree that may not pay off in the end, especially if that degree came in a liberal arts curriculum.

Many parents simply learned that college is not necessary for everyone.

As a result, higher education finds itself in a largely self-created crisis.

The best guess is that, in a decade or two, many colleges will go out of business, and they will have no one to blame but themselves.

They forgot that, for middle-class families, going to college is largely a business decision and that their outdated business model no longer fulfilled the needs of their customers.