Pub. 18 2021 Issue 3


America’s Higher Education Conundrum

In June 2021, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its Spring college enrollment data. The Spring 2021 semester found that college enrollment had dropped nearly 5% overall, a jarring decrease. This means there were approximately 727,000 fewer students than the year prior. There was hope that the spring semester would increase enrollment, but that didn’t prove the case. Now, given a myriad of factors, there is concern that the decrease in enrollment in higher education could become a permanent issue barring significant changes.

This data illustrates an acceleration in an overall decrease in college enrollment that has been occurring since 2012. Some of this decrease can be attributed to both the health and economic uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are clearly deeper factors at work as well. There’s no doubt that a college degree, in a vacuum, is an overwhelmingly positive accomplishment. But because higher education in the United States is so expensive, the choice for individuals to attend college usually doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

The pandemic has shown the value of a college education in America on both earning potential and the ability to weather economic hardships. Individuals with a college degree have been far less likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic and, if they have, had a much higher likelihood of finding another job. According to the Clearinghouse Research Center, “Almost all of the income gains and employment gains for the last decade have gone to people with higher education degrees and credentials.” There are tangible benefits to earning a college degree, but the cost and subsequent debt that can result are substantial factors prospective students must weigh.

According to Federal Reserve estimates released in early September 2021, Americans owed a stunning $1.73 trillion in student loans, a 3% increase compared to quarter two of 2020 despite a lengthy pause on federal student loan interest rates and the elimination of billions of federally held student loans by the Biden administration. The situation has been exacerbated just in the last decade, as Americans owed $905 billion in student loans in 2011, meaning that student debt has increased by 91% in just the last decade. Millions of students in the United States are faced with the choice of not going to college – which damages one’s earning potential – or entering a state of crippling permanent debt.

In most states, the average debt graduates face is well over $25,000, with some states exceeding $35,000.

In most states, the average debt graduates face is well over $25,000, with some states exceeding $35,000. If you have $35,000 or more in debt, you face extremely long odds of achieving financial stability. You will have to scratch and claw just to make it to square one. You are put in a position to find an extraordinarily high-paying job, which is difficult to find. Having a large amount of student debt essentially causes a domino effect of economic and social instability. The cost of college in this country deters many people from seeking higher education and places many who pursue one in an untenable position.

In recent months, four student loan servicing companies have ended their contracts with the U.S. Department of Education, causing much uncertainty leading to the resumption of repayment for federal student loans scheduled for the end of January 2022. Since federal student loan payments and interest have been paused for over 18 months, tens of millions of borrowers will be resuming repayments simultaneously, an unprecedented event. Adding to the complications following the long pause is a tremendous upheaval in student loan debt servicing, which usually causes problems like lost records and missed payments. Advocates for student loan debt borrowers have used this opportunity to call on the Biden administration to cancel vast amounts of student debt. So far, those calls are falling on deaf ears.

We have now reached the point where higher education feels like a complete pipe dream for vast swaths of Americans. Instead of presenting it as it should be, an open opportunity for all who care to partake, higher education in America has largely been presented as an exclusive club where you can enter a different stratum of society. Beyond what you learn there, many people who go to college view it as a place where they internalize a set of manners and patterns of professional behavior. The cost of college and the sense of exclusivity and learned behaviors that come with it lead to tremendous division between the college-educated and those who haven’t attended.

It is also highly worrisome that, as a country, we are constructing so many barriers to higher education and subsequent economic stability that many young people are questioning whether going to college is worth it. In a vacuum, ignoring the costs and other collateral factors, a college education is a positive achievement that can only help an individual. But we have attached so many external factors to a college degree that the entire discussion has been muddied. When a high school graduate is faced with the choice of not attending college or accruing over $50,000 in debt to go, that is an incredibly difficult position to be in.

During the pandemic, it became clear that there remains a lack of trust between many average Americans and institutional expertise. I believe a major element of this division is how increasingly inaccessible higher education has become and, in turn, the belief that many universities are exclusive clubs to essentially learn a set of beliefs that distance you from the unwashed masses. College should be viewed predominantly as a place where you can grow emotionally and intellectually as a young adult, but the cost attached to it has distorted its true purpose. By accompanying a college education with this overwhelming cost, we have managed to bring the effectiveness of that education into debate. Is it the education itself or the cost that is being questioned? It’s obviously the cost, but it’s easy to conflate the two and muddy the waters. Attaching massive costs to college education only makes most average people question the efficacy of it, not become more likely to pursue one. It has massively negative consequences on the way society views higher education.

When you see a trend like a 5% overall decrease in college enrollment, you have to ask the question, “Why?” Is it that people are becoming more cynical about college, or is it because the cost attached to higher education is making people cynical about the entire experience? It’s clearly the latter. Currently, small policy measures are being taken in an attempt to solve the problem. Recently, the Department of Education addressed the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program by making its requirements less onerous. Under current law, borrowers can only see their federal student loans wiped out through the PSLF program if they meet the following criteria: hold a public sector job, participate in a repayment plan, and make 120 on-time student loan payments. That might sound simple; however, most borrowers find themselves coming up short of the legal requirements. Making the program easier to navigate is an example of incremental change lawmakers are willing to do. Bold, systemic action is currently not in the cards.

Huge decreases in higher education enrollment are not a good sign for a country. A less educated society means a less empowered society. When young people see family and friends dealing with mountains of student loan debt that control their lives, that will not make them more likely to pursue a college degree. It’s going to make millions of high school graduates say things like, “I may not have a college degree, but at least I don’t have tens of thousands of dollars of debt.” This genuine concern has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

There must be bold action within the next decade to make college, both community and four-year, more affordable and, ultimately, change the perception of it. For a society to achieve even a fraction of its potential, there must be trust between its citizens and its institutions. A huge step in regaining some of that trust would be to make higher education more affordable and accessible. 

Mark Anderson is a Legal and Legislative Assistant for New Mexico Bankers Association.