There are seismic shifts occurring in the post-secondary arena over the past handful of years, and the rate of change is sure to accelerate. Student enrollment at University of Wisconsin institutions have been decreasing aggressively since 2010; layoffs, downsizing and college closures are being reported throughout the state, and these trends are reflected throughout the country. What is causing this precipitous decline in college enrollment, and what is the future of post-secondary education in the United States?
One of the main causes of the decline in college enrollment is the change in the perceived value of a college education. For decades, the popular motto had been ‘the degree is all you need to be successful’. No differentiation was made between degrees that provided access to employment opportunities in the marketplace and those degrees that simply allowed students to ‘follow their interests’. As a result, many young adults completed their 4-year degree, only to realize that the marketplace had no economically viable place for them. The piece of paper was simply not sufficient.
Additionally, the cost of tuition has skyrocketed over the past 20 years, increasing by almost triple during that time period. Many public and private universities have become overly bureaucratic, bloated, and top-heavy. They have lost their mission of education, focusing instead on sports (due to the significant income potential), social engineering and political pandering. Students and parents alike have realized that in far too many instances, these costs do not provide a reasonable rate of return. The student loan crisis has only added to this dilemma. Not only is the cost of education excessive, but many graduates also find themselves paying for that education two or three times over because of the interest accruing over their lifetimes. There are currently over 45 million Americans paying nearly two trillion dollars in debt. You read that correctly – trillion with a ‘t’.
The third reason for the broad rethinking of the college paradigm is the accessibility of education through on-line sources. There is no doubt that ongoing education and information will be the ticket to success for millennials and younger generations, but access to that education and information is no longer guarded by the brick walls of sophisticated institutions of higher learning. If anything good came out of the Covid shutdowns, two realizations became powerfully clear: 1. The quality of education coming from many of our colleges and universities is substandard (and in some cases ludicrous); 2. On-line education is viable and is here to stay.
So, what will higher education look like 10 years from today? If you have an 8-year-old at home, what will her options be when she turns 18? Only time will tell, but the landscape will certainly be dramatically different. More and more reputable on-line degree programs will become available, driving competition among suppliers and driving costs down. Parents and high schools will need to do a better job of exposing their teenagers to various career fields and occupations so that young adults can more effectively choose their path. Once that path is chosen, the student can explore the steps and options to receiving the degree, or the certification, or the license required to pursue their interests. No longer will 4-year universities be able to dictate that two years of ‘general education classes’ are required before a student can begin studies specific to his or her major. No longer will the academics of our day be able to decide what topics or subjects young people need to be exposed to in order to be ‘well-rounded’ or to be a ‘citizen of the world’. This always has been nothing more than a money-making scheme for these institutions, and the general populace is now revolting.
If a student decides to pursue a degree in Accounting, he/she should be able to begin immediately taking math, written and verbal communication, and bookkeeping classes. This will allow for 4-year degrees to be completed in two years or less, which will hasten the collapse of colleges and universities as we know them today. For training in the trades, there will be a need for brick-and-mortar locations to offer hands-on instruction, but this could be provided by for-profit organizations as effectively and possibly more efficiently than government technical colleges. If, in addition to learning about a specific field of study, students would also like to learn about music, art, or minority literature, there is unlimited information available on the internet that they can pursue on their own time, at their own discretion.
Lastly, the assumption that a student must invest tens of thousands of dollars to receive ‘the college experience’ will also be seen for the ruse that it is. Eighteen-year-old students will still have the option to live on their own as they pursue their on-line degree, but they will not be relegated to the over-priced, often dismal living conditions that some dorms and off-campus housing provides.
As technology continues to advance at lightning speed and as career opportunities are available today that did not exist five years ago, we all must realize that lifelong learning will be a requirement for all of us to succeed in our professions and in daily life. Where we obtain that education and how much we pay for it will be up to us.