Fewer People Are Going to College. Here's Why That's a Good Thing.

The time and money spent on college can often be used more productively.


HD Download

Fewer people are going to college these days, and that's great news.

For decades, the percentage of recent high school graduates attending college was climbing, until about 2008, when it started leveling off. Twelve years later, it went in the other direction, with the largest one-year drop in over 30 years coming between 2019 and 2020. And then it continued falling into 2021, albeit at a lower rate.

According to some analysts, it's starting to climb back up. Which would be a shame.

The Wall Street Journal reports that in the past 10 years, about 200 colleges have closed down, or four times as many as in the previous decade.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, where five colleges have closed since 2016, officials have launched a "call to action" to try to reverse the trend.

State officials are promising new programs to bring kids back to campus, on top of the massive federal subsidies for college already on the books.

Back in 2014, President Barack Obama defended federal policies that encourage kids to go to college in an interview with Tumblr founder David Karp, who happens to be a high school dropout.

But Obama didn't explain the reason for that wage premium, which isn't based on actual knowledge accrued by college graduates. As the economist Bryan Caplan argued in his 2018 book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, most people don't learn anything on campus that helps with their actual jobs, and only kids who make it all the way to graduation earn more.

That's because a college degree is actually what Caplan calls a "signaling mechanism," or a way of showing that you have the fortitude to make it through. Employers want to hire college graduates not because of what they learned in English class but because they're more likely to arrive on time and do what they're told.

So why are fewer students going to college now? One theory is that employers can't afford to care as much because there's such a big labor shortage. Now, even high school graduates are getting tantalizingly high salaries. For teenagers, that may be outweighing the draw of college, particularly with such eye-popping tuition rates.

Daniel Moody, a 19-year-old who took a job at a Ford Motor Co. plant right out of high school told the Associated Press "if I would have gone to college after school, I would be dead broke…The type of money we're making out here, you're not going to be making that while you're trying to go to college."

Another explanation for the decline in college attendance is that a lot of people my age are dropping out of the workforce altogether. OK, that is a big problem—but sending more people to college isn't going to solve it.

In 2020, about 75 percent of kids who took the ACT did so badly that test administrators deemed them unprepared for college. And yet over 60 percent of high school graduates still go. If we could bring college attendance down even more, maybe fewer people would drop out and be stuck with loans and no degree to show for them.

"There were a lot of us with the pandemic, we kind of had a do-it-yourself kind of attitude of like, 'Oh — I can figure this out,'" a high school graduate in Tennessee named Grayson Hart told the Associated Press.

Like many teens, Hart thinks the time and money spent on college could be used more productively by just starting his career.

"Why do I want to put in all the money to get a piece of paper that really isn't going to help with what I'm doing right now?" said Hart, who's directing a youth theater program.

I hope more high school students ask themselves that question.

Photos: Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Web Summit, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Envato Elements.

Music: "Strawberry Rush," by Jane & The Boy via Artlist; "Mangrove," by Olmi via Artlist; "Friday Night Drinks," by b Track Shinto via Artlist.