An entire generation of Americans has been sold the idea of higher education as a panacea for all ills. That generation of Americans is now shackled with giant and unsustainable levels of student debt. And now, it appears that the big college tidal wave has crested, and is beginning to crash down.
The very latest numbers on U.S. college enrollment are out, and they're... notable. You would only describe them as "grim" if your livelihood depended on the Higher Learning Industrial Complex. A more accurate description might be: the initial indications of a much-needed adjustment. From the New York Times:
College enrollment fell 2 percent in 2012-13, the first significant decline since the 1990s, but nearly all of that drop hit for-profit and community colleges; now, signs point to 2013-14 being the year when traditional four-year, nonprofit colleges begin a contraction that will last for several years. The college-age population is dropping after more than a decade of sharp growth, and many adults who opted out of a forbidding job market and went back to school during the recession have been drawn back to work by the economic recovery.
A decline in enrollment at for-profit colleges, which tend to offer educations that are both expensive and subpar, is a good thing. A decline in enrollment at community colleges, which are underfunded and over-enrolled, is also a good thing, if it raises the quality of education for the remaining students there. And a decline in enrollment at traditional four-year colleges would also seem to be a good thing, if it means that those people who would have enrolled in college are not doing so because they're able to make better economic choices for themselves, like getting a job.
The current enrollment decline is being interpreted as "a harbinger of an ominous trend for second- and third-tier colleges, as well as niche religious, ethnic or gender-based schools." These schools may face budget shortfalls. There is a solution to this problem: shrink. The fact that students stop attending your school is an indication that there is no longer as great a demand for your services. (I say this as a former student of schools that could fit more than one of the above categories.) So cut your budget. Higher education in America has grown into a huge and bloated institutional force— bloated enough to load $1 trillion worth of debt onto students, while selling expensive degrees whose cost often bears little relation to their value. The fact that this bloated and unnecessary demand is shrinking back to earth is encouraging. This is not a sign of doom for students— students are becoming able to do something besides "waiting out" the recession in an extremely expensive manner.
College is great. Education is good. Making a college education available to everyone who needs and wants one is an admirable goal. But everyone does not need or want to go to college. There are plenty of other perfectly valid and fulfilling choices a person can make. The government's policy of pushing ever-greater numbers of Americans into college as some sort of cure-all is similar to the government's old policy of pushing ever-greater numbers of Americans into home ownership as some sort of cure-all. Those things are nice. But they're not for everyone. And pushing them on everyone comes with an enormous cost to society at large. The housing bubble already burst. The higher education bubble inevitably will as well. If we can manage it down to a soft and controlled landing, that is a good thing.