College Enrollment Hits New Record, but That's Not Necessarily Good News

Record Number of Students Enrolling in College: Too Many?
Record Number of Students Enrolling in College: Too Many?

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 70.1% of 2009's high school graduates were enrolled in college classes during October of 2009. That was up from 68.6% a year earlier.

The typical first reaction to this news is to say, "Great! Educational access for everyone!" But there are two problems. The first is that a huge percentage of those new colleges students won't graduate -- and those who do may find themselves no better off in the job market than than if they hadn't gone to college at all.

According to Marty Nemko, a columnist with U.S. News & World Report, "among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class, 76 of 100 won't earn a diploma, even if given 8 1/2 years."

And therein lies the problem: As the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in higher education increases, the marginal growth tends to come from the bottom 40% of high school graduates. That jump from 68.6% to 70.1% probably doesn't include many honors students.

Instead, increased enrollment in higher education is being driven by the recruitment of students who are unlikely to graduate with a degree that could provide a return on the investment. That lack of increased earnings power does not pair well with the large student loan debts carried by two-thirds of students when they leave school. And even among those who do graduate, more than half aren't finding work that requires a college degree.

The larger context of the rise in college enrollments is the weak job market. Young people have been hit particularly hard by the recession, with 16-24 year-olds having suffered the highest jobs losses and the highest unemployment rate. Some young people who can't find work are ending up in college, which has long been seen by some economists as a hidden pool of unemployment. While some of those students will do well and benefit from the experience, others are likely to drop out as soon as other options become available.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been banging the drum for increased access to higher education, and that's commendable. But before we start trying to enroll more kids in college, it might be a good idea to make sure the ones who are already there are getting value out of it -- and jobs when they graduate.

Originally published