In these days of pivot or fail, we don’t envy those in the higher education sector who are tasked with making fateful decisions, and they all seem to be lately.

As if covid wasn’t challenge enough, higher education had been looking down an upcoming “enrollment cliff” set to begin in 2025. Fewer children are expected to descend into the high school pipeline, so fewer graduates, and fewer students.

And with the rise in popularity of online degrees, the rise of career-training programs, and the stigma attached to them (finally) disappearing, the traditional college was still looking at a period of adjustment.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), post-secondary enrollment – ​​graduate and undergraduate students – fell 4.1% nationally in the spring of 2021. There are approximately 1.3 million fewer students enrolled in the United States. programs than there were in spring 2020.

Counting only undergraduate students, the overall enrollment decreased by about 1.4 million, or 9.4%.

The challenges seem ever-present: a shrinking pool of high school graduates, a growing pool of them opting out of the more expensive experience of traditional colleges, growing doubts about the ability of traditional colleges to deliver a return on reasonable investment, etc.

With the exception of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (5.5% growth) and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (3.7%), total enrollment is down year over year at each of the state’s 10 four-year public universities. Overall, it’s down 3.7 percent.

And about that return on investment… . Rachel Gifford, associate vice president of development and college relations at Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville, recently told Arkansas Money & Politics that high school students these days seem less concerned with college degrees than career paths. direct careers.

Through ANC’s short-term programs, some students could earn up to $50,000 a year in their first year out of school, she said. The college’s location in Mississippi County, adjacent to the nation’s major emerging steel corridor, has allowed students to take advantage of industry-specific curricula and internships.

Another worrying trend is a growing education gap between men and women. According to the information center, women made up 59.5% of students, an all-time high in the spring of 2021.

Four-year colleges and universities in the United States saw 1.5 million fewer students enrolled than in 2016. Males accounted for 71% of the decline.

Kindle Holderby, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management at UA Little Rock, told the magazine that tuition has risen from the list of concerns expressed by students and parents all the way to the top.

“What they expect from their experience, coupled with that cost, is how long is it going to take me to graduate, and what type of job am I going to get each time I go out with my diploma?”

We will always argue that the traditional college experience is very valuable. A walk across the Old Main Lawn on a fall afternoon or spring night, Saturday afternoon football in Fayetteville, or Jonesboro, Conway, Russellville, Arkadelphia. . . there is value there. Actual value. UA’s flagship campus in Fayetteville is poised to top 30,000 enrollment, and officials are again exploring off-campus housing options for a surge of incoming freshmen. Its growth over the past two decades has been impressive.

Because education is not, or should not be, just a path to employment. Or even a career. Being a graduate is not the same as being educated. For example, when colleges cut foreign language programs to save money, what are they giving up? The accounting office might not say much. But the offer of the college is necessarily weakened.

State leaders want to increase the number of degrees in the hands of young people in Arkansas. And it’s a good goal. But in a better world, college wouldn’t be vocational training. It would be a liberal upbringing (in the classic sense), true schooling and guardianship – call it cultivation, call it enlightenment – that would lead not just to better citizenship, but to better lives among citizens. We understand that these days young people are all about the bottom line. Some are more interested in what the college can do for them financially than. . . what the university experience can bring them. It’s hard to blame them. That’s their salary in five years. But at the very least, colleges can still offer the opportunity to improve. And had better. Or seek to be replaced by a much cheaper vocational training program elsewhere.

We can’t all be poets, but we can all appreciate them.

About Keith Tatum

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