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New Enrollment Numbers Show Why America Desperately Needs a “Public Option” for College Education

The numbers are in and, as predicted, it looks like a lot of people are putting off college in the time of pandemic.  

According to recently released data, overall college attendance is down 3% from fall of 2019, and undergraduate enrollment is down 4%.  That’s bad enough.  But the most eye-popping statistic?  Enrollment by first-time students, people who have never been to college and would be starting out as freshmen, is down a whopping 16%.  

That’s a huge loss.  

Community colleges are the hardest hit:  their overall enrollment dropped 9.4% nationwide.  Their first-time student enrollment is down 22%.  That means nearly 1 in 4 anticipated first time community college students decided not to go this year.

These numbers are devastating – not only does it mean that a whole lot of people who want an education have decided that they can’t get one now, but it puts an incredible strain on the business models of many colleges, one that they might not be able to survive.

The only good news is for graduate schools, which saw a 2.7% increase – substantially higher than last year.  That’s not surprising, as graduate schools usually see increased applications during recessions.  

But someone else saw an increase in enrollment too:  private, for-profit, four year colleges saw a notable increase in enrollment.  While public college numbers were dropping, private colleges got 3.7% more first time students.

Put it all together, and this is more evidence that the many systems intended to support the disadvantaged are not really designed for the task.  When public, accountable, colleges are seen as too burdensome to try but the most predatory kind of colleges with the poorest track records are seeing an increase in enrollment – something has gone very wrong.

But private, for-profit, colleges do two things right that public and nonprofit institutions desperately need to emulate if they want to continue to play their vital role in supporting both students and the economy.

First, for-profit colleges reduce barriers to entry.  Non-profit colleges often deliberately put up barriers to entry to try and appear exclusive and elite, and their bureaucratic requirements for admission – while well intentioned – often seem impenetrable.  This is a problem in its own right but during a time of global crisis, a complicated financial aid system or mess of admissions paperwork can easily make college inaccessible.  For-profit colleges, on the other hand, do everything they can to get students to enroll.  They make it easy and accessible.  It turns out that’s a good thing:  the problem isn’t that they’re so accessible, the problem is that they make promises they can’t keep and are predatory.  But at a time when we, as a society, desperately need an educated workforce, it turns out that artificial barriers to admissions make colleges inaccessible to the people we most want to go to college.  

Both students and our economy need responsible, public options for college that are in the business of reducing enrollment barriers, not putting them up.

Second, for-profit colleges are more experimental than non-profit colleges.  They iterate, they adjust, they throw out convention, and they try new things.  That’s why they were the first to create online colleges, and their structures are often better adapted to it.  

This is not to say that every public or non-profit college should throw out their playbook and be more like for-profits – of course they shouldn’t.  So many things about traditional colleges work for so many students.  But it does mean that there should be some experimentation, some risk taking.  Once again, we need a public option for education that can experiment to meet the needs of its students, rather than demanding that its students conform to its needs.  Once again, the problem with for-profit colleges isn’t that they’re experimental – it’s that they’re predatory.

The grim enrollment numbers are going to be hard on traditional colleges, but what it represents for the students, and the economy, is much harder.  The need for a responsible, accessible, public option for college that can experiment in order to meet its students where they are, has never been greater.  

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