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Declining College Enrollment is About Accessibility, Not Value

College enrollment keeps dropping, which is a problem for the economy of tomorrow.  But experts can’t agree about what’s changing in education, and why.

Writing in the New York Times, reporter Stephanie Saul quotes experts as saying both that we are seeing a fundamental re-evaluation of the value of a college degree among potential students, and that this is just a temporary blip caused by the pandemic.

They can’t both be right.  What’s going on?

It’s Not About Value – It’s About Accessibility

There’s no evidence that the value of a college education has reduced. If anything, it’s gotten more important than ever. Recent surveys show that only the college educated are having an economic recovery. Many jobs that paid good salaries without requiring a college education have simply vanished during the pandemic, and automation is increasingly on track to eliminate millions more.  

A recent study showed that:

  • It takes 30 years of work experience for an adult without a college degree to catch up to the wage a bachelor’s degree holder earns on the first day of their career.
  • There are now 7.5 million jobs in the economy that used to be accessible to people without a college degree, but now require one.
  • In none of the 50 largest metro regions in the U.S. do people without college degrees earn equal pay for equal work when compared to bachelor’s degree holders. 

In many ways a college education has never been more valuable. Yet fewer people are enrolling.

A big part of that is cost, of course:  the cost of college has famously gotten out of control in the 21st century, putting it realistically out of the hands of millions of Americans.  And sure enough:  when you reduce the cost of college, or even make it free, more people enroll.  

Too Many Barriers

But there are other barriers too. It’s not just cost that keeps potential students from enrolling.  There’s bureaucracy:  to enroll in most colleges requires filling out a whole lot of forms, jumping through a lot of hoops, and working through a lot of red tape — especially if you also need financial aid.

There’s time: as the economy gets harder and more complicated, fewer potential students can commit to a regular classroom schedule. There’s no point in enrolling in college, even if you can afford it, if you can’t go to the classes. Here at Calbright — where we offer classes that students can take on their own schedule, whether that’s three hours on the weekend or 15 minutes each night — we hear from many of our students that the ability to study on their schedules was just as important, or even more, than the fact that we offer our classes for free.

To quote Yvette, one of our students:

“Calbright works with my schedule, which is all over the place. My clients all want me at the same times and sometimes they’re canceling at the same times. If I went to a traditional school, I would have to be missing classes all the time or giving up income. But at Calbright, I can take my classes at midnight if I want to. It works very well.”

Make it Accessible, and They Will Come

Put the evidence together, and it seems clear that there’s no lack of interest in what a college education can provide — but people need the right education to be accessible to them.  That’s good news, because we can use innovation to offer people what they need.  New research, for example, shows that certificates from community colleges can be an effective way to boost career prospects and are much more accessible.  

Calbright takes it several steps further:  it’s currently free to Californians, has virtually no red tape for getting accepted, is entirely online (and provides the technology to access it if students don’t already have it), designed to fit into a student’s schedule, and uses Competency Based Education, which puts the emphasis on what students actually know instead of how long they spend in the classroom.  

It’s what an increasingly large number of students want, because it fits their needs.  

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