Thursday, October 15, 2020

The College Dream is Over (Gary Roth*)

For the last decade already, access to a college education has been shrinking. This is unprecedented for the United States, in which expanding access has always presupposed that enrollments grow faster than population. This has been true in all but a handful of years ever since annual data were compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. During the major expansion of higher education during the 1950s and 60s -- when for the first time large numbers of students from working class backgrounds entered the collegiate system, college enrollments outpaced population by a factor of eight. Even as recently as the first decade of this century, enrollments increased four times faster than population growth. The current crisis began in 2010, with enrollments expected to remain flat for another ten years or more, even though the population continues to grow.[i] The college educated will shrink as a portion of the population at large.

If access is declining, so too are the chances for upward mobility. The future has narrowed. Stagnant enrollments put into reverse some of the signature accomplishments upon which the educational community and the nation at large have prided themselves. Two groups in particular have been hit hard. Much attention has been given to the decline in black student enrollment, generally attributable to a rollback of affirmative action policies and a pronounced increase in racist incidents. Less noticed has been the decline in white student participation, which has fallen by a similar percent over the last decade.[ii] For both black people and white people, access is shrinking.

This decline compounds the difficulties which college graduates already face. Since the early 1990s, one-third of the graduates with bachelor’s degrees have found themselves in jobs for which a college education is not necessary.[iii] Here too, upward mobility in terms of the types of work available, compensation, and possible career paths forward has been foreclosed. This in turn produces a ripple effect on everyone without a four-year degree. The underemployed college graduates crowd into employment fields that they had hoped to avoid, which in turn exerts downward pressure on wages across the board. If college attendance was once motivated by the desire to get ahead and improve one’s circumstances, it has increasing become a negative motivation. You go to college in order to avoid the even-more difficult fates that await those with less schooling. 

The dream of education as a lever of social transformation is over. This dream was never fully grounded in reality anyway, but whatever it stood for in the past no longer fits the current situation. Collegiate institutions have become temporary warehouses for the children of the middle and working classes. Graduation dumps them into an economic cul-de-sac in which appropriate jobs are lacking. Student debt makes this situation all the more disturbing. Since the pandemic, even underemployment has begun to look good, so scarce have jobs become. Richard FariƱa’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966) takes on a new poignancy. 

[i] Annual enrollment data begins in 1947; U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, Table 303.10 (2019). For population 1790-1930: U.S. Census Bureau, Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, A 6-7; for population 1940-2020: U.S. Census Bureau, Decennial Censuses.

[ii] Between the peak year of enrollment in 2010 and 2018, black student enrollment declined by 18%, while white student enrollment declined by 19%; U.S. Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, Table 306.10 (2019). Also see: Ben Miller, ‘It’s Time to Worry About College Enrollment Declines Among Black Students’, 28 September 2020,; Kevin Carey, ‘A Detailed Look at the Downside of California’s Ban on Affirmative Action’, The New York Times, 21 August 2020,

[iii] Federal Reserve Bank of New York, ‘The Labor Market for Recent College Graduates: Underemployment’, 17 July 2020,

*Gary Roth is the author of "The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility." 

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