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Confronting Higher Education Issues
The perception of higher education’s value — specifically a traditional college and university education — has changed dramatically in the past few years. The number of people completing college has increased for several decades, but this trend has slowed in recent years, with younger millennials and Gen Z not pursuing traditional college degrees as much as previous generations.
To understand the changes, we must consider a few different factors, including where the priority of degree-based education stemmed from, how paths to the job market have shifted in recent years, and where other generational differences lie.
Once these factors are understood, it becomes clearer what higher education institutions can do to encourage younger generations to attend their programs.
Why Was Higher Education a Priority to Gen X and Millennials?
For the past six decades, the percentage of young adults with a college degree has steadily risen. In the early 70s, approximately 17.6% of 29-year-olds had a bachelor’s degree or higher; in the past decade, that number has hovered around 35.3%.
So, why has higher education been so important to previous generations? There are many reasons, but let’s start with the most common.
Provided Opportunities Not Available to Previous Generations
The need for a college education was a foregone conclusion for previous generations. It was a commonly held belief that if you could go to college, you should. The doors to a college or university education were considered the same ones that led to financial independence and a successful, prosperous life. When the opportunity presented itself, most people agreed it should be taken.
Government initiatives expanded higher education’s reach to individuals who may not have previously considered it a possibility. For example, the GI Bill made it possible for returning soldiers to become the first college graduates in their families. This tradition stuck even as times changed, and aging generations sought to continue offering educational opportunities to their children that had once been denied to them.
Seen as the Only Pathway to Higher Earning Potential
Prior to the online learning revolution, the only clear path to a professional future was a secondary education at a college or university. College was the only way to go if you wanted a prestigious, well-paid job. This is still true for certain careers, such as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals with degree-specific licensure.
However, in recent years — and expedited by the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of virtual learning — other paths for professional development have become increasingly common in a variety of industries. We will cover the specifics of those options later, including certificate programs, bootcamps, and trade schools.
Perception of Being “College Educated”
The perception of a college education as a status symbol has served as a powerful driving force for enrollment. College was viewed as a path to higher education and societal ranking. In some professions, certain colleges were — and in some ways still are — valued over others for their pedigree.
For example, ivy-league colleges are often seen as more prestigious than other universities, and any four-year degree program has long held a perceived value over a community college or certificate program.
What’s Causing This To Change?
So, now that we know where this perception originated let’s look at why it’s starting to shift with the younger generations.
Youngest Millennials and Gen Z
Millennials are on track to have the highest college attainment rate of any generation. The millennial generation encompasses those born between 1981 and 1996. So, while older millennials followed a more traditional trajectory toward higher education, the youngest millennials are landing more in line with Gen Z when it comes to choices about higher education.
It’s not that the desire for higher education is waning; instead, the attitude about where that education needs to be attained is shifting. More people are asking themselves if their post-high school education needs to come from a traditional degree-granting institution or can be pursued elsewhere.
Multiple Paths to Desired Career
It used to be that the only clear path to a professional future was secondary education at a college, university, or — to a lesser degree — a community college if a student lacked the means for other options.
However, it’s no longer necessary to attain a four-year degree to acquire highly-prized positions in many of today’s most desirable fields. More and more companies are offering corporate-sponsored certificate programs. These programs create a funnel directly into their ranks.
For example, Google offers many certificate programs, and they have committed to treating certificates as the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. Other major employers, such as Microsoft and Amazon, also offer certification programs, many of which can be completed in a matter of months.
Companies are relying less and less on institutional knowledge where work experience or alternative secondary education will serve their needs. Even more are leaning on internal education, choosing to find applicants with an aptitude for the field of work, and choosing on-the-job training over professional degrees. These individuals represent a larger hiring pool, not to mention a more proprietary workforce.
With shorter, more focused educational opportunities available, students are finding it easier personally and financially to seek alternative options. Enrollment in short-term certificate or other credential courses increased by 70% during the pandemic.
Oversaturated Job Market
Job market oversaturation is an issue, with many companies scaling back after taking on additional employees during the pandemic. In today’s world, it’s essential to be flexible and agile in many fields because the work landscape is rapidly evolving.
A college degree, while prestigious, requires a multi-year dedication to a single discipline that can leave many students feeling left behind when they enter a field that’s swiftly changing to meet evolving market demands. Short-term alternatives that allow people to learn new skills quickly as needed are well suited to this new professional landscape.
Costs and Long-Term Student Debt
Student debt rose by around $600 billion in the last ten years alone. That’s a trend that’s continued since the 1980s. Many students are finding their future prospects bogged down by payments for degrees that are increasingly less essential. If a student can instead complete a certificate program and enter the job market in a manner of months for a fraction of the cost of a four-year degree, why wouldn’t that be an appealing option?
How Has Lower Enrollment Impacted the Higher Education Industry?
Now that we’ve discussed some of the critical factors behind lower enrollment numbers at traditional colleges and universities, it’s time to look at how these changes impact the field of higher education as a whole.
Tenure Being Re-Evaluated or Lost
Tenure is no longer an attractive or attainable route for many people entering academia. As salaries drop and alternative paths like part-time and assistant gigs become more prolific, this standard of higher education may be in its last days.
Approximately 75% of instructional staff is not on a tenured track. With this lack of job security, many faculty members are looking elsewhere for employment.
Raising Costs Further Alienating Gen Z students
Gen Z students are a generation who can often not afford the luxuries their parents and grandparents took for granted. With many factors playing into this, such as rapid inflation, soaring home prices, and stagnant wages, many Gen Z students are considering their options. Once regarded as mandatory for a successful life, higher education has become a privilege many can’t afford.
More and more institutions can no longer afford full-time faculty professors when adjuncts and assistants are cheaper, more ‘disposable’ options. This creates a climate in which the promise of a high salary on the other side no longer balances the cost of attaining a degree. Because of this, many institutions are experiencing a faculty shortage.
Fewer Teachers, Larger Class Sizes, and More Stress
As institutional finances dwindle, teachers are asked to do more and more with less and less. This means larger class sizes and fewer resources to effectively teach with, reducing the personal impact of individual mentoring in favor of a broader, less effective approach.
Increase in the Use of Contingent Faculty
Tighter political and economic pressures are forcing institutions to abandon the tenured professor track in favor of contingent faculty positions. These positions amount to what are essentially temp workers in the education field. This rise in lower-paying positions with reduced job security and fewer support resources is leading to an untenable future for many educators.
Gen Z has Different Needs and Priorities
Members of Gen Z also seem to evaluate institutions from a different perspective, researching not just an organization’s prestige but also its values and initiatives.
Diversity and Inclusion
Gen Z is the most diverse generation in history. Initiatives addressing inclusion, diversity, and social justice are important to many Gen Z students, and they want to see that diversity reflected in the institutions they choose to support.
Mental Health Awareness
Many institutions understand and continue to emphasize the need to meet their students’ mental health needs, but budgets haven’t reflected this shift in policy. With increasing pressure on colleges and universities to do more with less, it’s a balancing act to find, educate, and graduate well-rounded students who are primed for success. Choosing which initiatives receive the bulk of dwindling financial resources is also challenging.
Different Learning Requirements
As culture becomes more and more aware of students’ learning requirements and how to reach them ‘where they are,’ the tools used by higher education institutions must adapt to understand this new demographic. Gen Z increasingly wants to see educational approaches that reflect different learning styles and value faculty who are willing to accommodate diverse student needs.
Alternative Pathways to Education
So, what is Gen Z doing instead of attending four-year colleges and universities? Remember, the decreased attendance at these traditional institutions does not reflect a lack of interest in higher education. These younger generations value lifelong learning and higher education, but they also recognize that there are multiple ways to get there.
Bootcamps or Immersion Training
More and more students, especially from lower-income families, are finding that the higher education route no longer makes sense for them financially or professionally. A four-year degree is not the only route to success in today’s world, and bootcamps — which take a fraction of the time (six months on average) and a fraction of the cost (around $13k) — are a more cost-effective, direct path than a four-year degree.
Trade schools offer a path into the professional world that favors working-class, already-employed, and low-income individuals. Attending classes part-time allows students to meet their financial needs by remaining employed, parenting, or gaining temporary employment while they upscale their skills. Likewise, full-time trade school attendees find a shorter, cheaper, and more focused curriculum can get them exactly where they want to be as soon as possible.
Short-term classes and apprenticeships are on the rise, leading to a massive shift in how the workforce receives its education. While college enrollment has dropped by 16%, a growing trend year over year, apprenticeship enrollment has nearly doubled in less than a decade.
How the country’s higher education system should be managed has been at the center of political debate for the last several election cycles. With roots in moral, legal, and financial issues, these debates are not likely to end anytime soon.
Adapting to the New Higher Ed Landscape
The academic landscape will continue to shift and evolve, but there are ways educators can face and embrace these challenges. Educators need to be inclusive, allowing for accommodation for various learning styles and differences.
Educators should also be passionate about their fields of study, serving as subject ambassadors to their students. Finally, they should be committed to participating in their institutions’ behind-the-scenes processes and dialoguing with administrators about future shifts in the higher ed landscape.