Americans are falling out of love with the idea of college
We expected too much of our one functional institution.
I remember, when I graduated, there was this guy I knew who was very disappointed with his university experience — so disappointed that he made us all listen to a poem he wrote about it. The poem was very bad (yes, it rhymed “knowledge” with “college”). Afterwards, I said to him “Man, I think you just expected too much out of this institution.” When I see the latest piece of news about Americans’ dissatisfaction with their university system, I think back to that guy’s poem, because I think maybe we all expected a little too much out of our universities.
In the 2000s and 2010s, many American institutions seemed to creak and fail. The financial system blew up. Health care became impossibly overpriced. We stopped building houses, we stopped going to church. The government was paralyzed by polarization and populism. But our higher education system remained the most respected in the world, with international students beating down our doors to get American diplomas. College towns flourished even as the Rust Belt and the Great Recession laid waste to the rest of small-town America. And as the opioid epidemic raged and suicide rose, college seemed like the one force that could actually teach Americans to live healthier lifestyles. In a nation where everything seemed to be going wrong, we put more and more faith in the shining beacon of our one functional institution.
Now, years later, that faith appears to be waning. Recent polls show a very sharp drop in Americans’ confidence in higher education:
The shift is more pronounced among Republicans than Democrats, but it’s present for basically all demographic groups; this isn’t just politics. The drop in college’s favorability is slightly stronger among the young relative to the middle-aged, among women relative to men, and among people with postgraduate degrees relative to those with just a bachelor’s.
Other polls find similar results.
In general, Americans are simply falling out of love with the idea of college. Why? Maybe part of it is a lingering effect of the pandemic school closures, and maybe part of it is just the general era of social unrest and negativity that we just experienced. But it’s not just polls; trends in “harder” measures like enrollment, tuition, and choice of majors all seem to point in the same direction.
My read of the situation is simply that Americans are coming to the same basic realization that my poetically challenged classmate came to: College isn’t a magical box that will make your life turn out like a fairy tale. We inflated our expectations of what this one institution can do for us, and now we’re suffering from the inevitable disillusionment.
Why young Americans are starting to turn away from college
A recent WSJ poll points to the reason that young Americans are less positive about college: Increasingly, they just don’t think the economic payoff is worth the money.
This negative attitude is more common among the young:
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