Traditional college enrollments among high school students are on the decline. Online enrollments for working adult learners, though, are up. Way up. Why is that?

“May you live in interesting times,” I once heard someone say. For those of us following college enrollment trends, the times are very, very interesting.

Recent enrollment figures, combined with early data for fall 2021, indicate that — with a few notable exceptions — the pressures on higher ed institutions increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, though, enrollments were declining as higher education inched closer to the “demographic cliff” — an expected fall-off in enrollments for traditional college-age students beginning in 2025 (a result of the “birth dearth” that began with the Great Recession of 2008). High schools simply aren’t graduating as many students as they once did.

There are other reasons, of course, but one in particular grabs my attention: These days, the fundamental value of a college degree is being questioned.

Not long ago a college education was seen as a golden ticket to a higher standard of living. And let’s be clear: That’s still true. Research continues to show a direct link between earning a college degree and better initial job prospects, higher lifetime earnings, improved access to health care, longer lifespans, and greater opportunities for professional advancement.

Still, rising college tuition costs, a changing job market, the specter of student debt, and an unforeseen and ruthless pandemic that sent shockwaves through globally connected economies has placed enrollments under pressures unseen for decades. Here’s a metric that keeps me awake: There are more than 1 million (!) fewer traditional students (those aged 18-22) in college now than there were before the pandemic began.

So where did they all go?

Many migrated to a job market brimming with full employment, where wages are rising for workers in low-skilled jobs. And let’s be frank: When the nearby big-box store is begging for workers at $15 an hour, it can be hard to persuade high school graduates to enroll in college. That higher starting wage comes at a cost, however: Many will have already hit their occupational ceiling. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 70% of new jobs require a postsecondary education, and good jobs will continue to be concentrated among workers with more than a high school education. In other words, you might not need a college education to get a good-paying job, but you’re sure going to need one to move up, or even keep the job you have.

Others have elected to take a “gap year” to invest in their own self-discovery until their ultimate life plans come into sharper focus. This has led some to believe that entire generations of students may rethink the value of college itself. If they’re right, the negative potential impact not only falls on those who forego higher education, but also on a labor market already facing widening talent gaps and skill shortages.

Overall, though, the trend is clear: In general, college enrollments among the traditional undergraduate and graduate programs have been steadily trending downward since 2012; the pandemic merely accelerated the decline.

But enough doom and gloom. There are emerging trends that reinforce the need for a more skilled workforce and demonstrate the value of higher education. Most notable are the increasing enrollments among non-traditional (read that: “working adult”) students, particularly as they become more comfortable with digital technologies. Driving this are corporations, industries, and workforce development partners who are fueling ever-increasing opportunities for workforce reskilling.

Innovations in education, combined with employers’ demands for a more skilled workforce, have led to a surging demand for career-oriented professional certificates and “stackable” credentials that ultimately culminate with a college degree. In response, many higher ed institutions now offer shorter duration programs that provide the skills that employers need in a manner that, through digital technology, is readily achievable and accessible to the working adult. At Indiana Tech, for instance, more than 3/4 of our students are working adults taking online college courses paid for by a combination of the tuition benefit programs of their employers and university-sourced corporate scholarships.

This, then, is the new way forward: Academic/Industry partnerships that provide post-secondary education programming that is more accessible, increasingly flexible, less costly, and with much greater utility for the learner. Employers benefit by recruiting (and retaining) a higher quality, more motivated workforce; employees earn the skills and credentials needed to advance their career; and educators find new pools of motivated students eager to earn their degree. “Win-win-wins” for all are assured.

Make no mistake: The value and importance of higher education is greater than ever, but labor shortages and new digital technologies mean that colleges and universities are once again challenged to change with the times. Thankfully, new partnerships with our corporate colleagues mean that we can collectively add new value to workforce development … and bring new educational opportunities to many along the way.

“Interesting times” indeed!

Steve Herendeen is vice president of Enrollment Management for Indiana Tech, a comprehensive, private, not-for-profit university founded in Fort Wayne, that serves students with career-oriented degree programs available through its residential campus, online, and regional satellite locations.

ADAM BARTROM is a partner the Labor and Employment Department of Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Fort Wayne office. He can be reached at adam.bartrom@btlaw.com or 260-425-4629.

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