UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – College enrollment is down – That’s OK. Why would anyone want to go to college?

It’s a rather important question that would have seemed unnecessary to ask just five or ten years ago. However, college-for-all is not a good idea or policy – I’ve been writing about that for years. In fact, college has always been unnecessary for most people in the contemporary economy. In fact, it has largely been a waste of time and money for many students in the past thirty years as colleges expanded enrollment and states promoted college-prep as the only path. Many people have pursued degrees to end up working in fields that never required one.

Most estimates suggest a four-year bachelor’s degree is a necessary prerequisite for less than four in ten jobs in the American economy. In a recent column on declines in higher education enrollment, conservative Washington Post column George Will cited data that indicated “38 percent of recent college graduates, and one-third of all college graduates, hold jobs that do not require a college degree.” With unemployment at a fifty-year low, clear evidence of a strong and growing economy, people entering or currently in the workforce have plenty of options.

And, let’s face it. Employers and the business world at large have long used the college diploma as simply a screening system and gatekeeper for job applicants. While the degree process for many fields can specifically be connected to future employment, the bachelor degree is not like an apprenticeship program. Bachelor’s degrees are not specifically job training, nor were they ever intended to be. For many jobs, the employer has little interest in what the student learned in college. Instead, they simply want to know the person has the ability to earn the degree, to put in the time and meet the requirements. That says much more than the actual skills learned. 

In a recent editorial for USA Today, Jim Gash, the president of Pepperdine University, discussed that idea. He began by sharing feedback the school received after posting a question on a billboard in Times Square about the purpose and reasoning for going to college. While some respondents noted the necessary credentialing required for jobs in medicine and law, others noted careers in skilled trades or even generalized fields like marketing that don’t require college. And Gash pointed to a “Gallup survey which found that just 39 percent of Gen Z, defined as ages 12-26, think college is “very important.”

George Will’s column about dropping college enrollments, posits that “As enrollments plummet, academia gets schooled about where it went wrong.” Specifically, Will believes students are choosing options other than college because they are turned off by the political environment on campus and the political stances taken by school administrators. While I generally agree with Will, he’s naive to believe enrollment is dropping because of progressive politics. The reasons are simply economic — cost/benefit for degree in relation to job potential. And, of course, the burden versus payoff for taking on college debt. 

That said, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal recently lamented what many major colleges and universities have “done to themselves.” In my view, both Noonan and Will are exaggerating and overemphasizing the politics on campus. Though the recent congressional testimony and resignations of three elite university presidents lend credence to their criticism. As likely as colleges being political action committees is the schools simply becoming semi- professional sports training facilities. With the establishment of NIL payments to student-athletes and the astronomical salaries of elite football coaches, it seems education is just a side-hustle.

The history of the university system in the United States was not based on job training and economy-based skills – it was about character and personal growth. The system was founded on the idea of a classical liberal arts education grounded in the classics. The goal was to create well-educated, well-rounded citizens who would provide the educated electorate that the newly formed republic needed to function and support a system of individual rights and self-determination. As Pepperdine President Gash laments in his column “the college experience has failed to provide far too many students the character-forming experiences necessary for a free and flourishing society.”

The classical liberal arts foundation is still an excellent reason to pursue higher education. If people need college degrees for their careers, or they have the luxury of paying for a few years to figure that out, higher ed makes sense. Otherwise, working and credentials are the better choice. 

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com