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Is the College Enrollment Decline Really a Crisis?

And what simple changes can be made to attract more students to higher education?
A walkway and buildings on a typical college campus

College enrollments have steadily been declining over the past decade. This is a cause of great concern, says Adjunct Lecturer Chris Gabrieli, not just for the prospects of a person’s future but for all of society.

“College going and college completion are associated with many, many positives. People are more likely to vote. People are more likely to be civically engaged. People are obviously far more likely to earn incomes commensurate with getting into the middle class, with owning a home, with not being dependent on social programs, such as Medicaid for their health, et cetera, et cetera,” Gabrieli says. “And so on the upside and of course the economy grows faster. I mean, around the world, college education rates are highly related to economic growth rates and success rates. So there's a lot at stake.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Gabrieli, also the chairman of the board of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, talks about how higher education is moving much too slowly to make change and shares how ideas like early college may attract people to higher education.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Fewer young people are enrolling in college. In just the past few years, enrollments have dropped by 13%. For black and Latin X students there's been a 20 to 30% decline. Chris Gabrieli worries about these growing dips in enrollment and what it means for the future. He's the chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education and a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For at least a decade now, college enrollments have been steadily declining. I wanted to know more about what's causing this shift and how we can change course. First, I asked Chris whether he believes this is a crisis and why.

Chris Gabrieli

I mean, it's a slower moving crisis. So that's always the tricky piece, but yeah, no, it is a crisis. For the colleges narrowly, it's a crisis for their operating model because most colleges depend on tuition associated with their students to float the boat. They have high fixed costs, and so they can't easily absorb in a downturn. For our society though, it's a greater challenge. I mean, we know that while there are many who challenge the hegemony of a college degree or a master's degree as what's necessary remains the case, that is the primary way to get into the middle class in this country and to sort of enjoy the full respect of the fellow citizenry.

And so to see low income students and students of color turning down their college enrollment rates at the level they are speaks not just immediate issues, but 10, 20, 50 year issues that we're talking about people at the beginnings of their lives and careers at a moment when we're already stressed out about the rise of AI and robots and other things that are replacing lower to middle skills jobs. What is the likely outcome of someone only holds a high school degree? It's pretty darn bad. The colleges individually see it as, Hey, our problem individually, but as a society, we just need to be very concerned about what we're doing to our future.

Jill Anderson: When I started to read a little bit about this crisis and the data, it's incredibly alarming, and I just suspect people aren't aware how much there are implications, not just on an individual person's life, but society as a greater whole, on the economy, on health. It's amazing when you start to look at some of that data.

Chris Gabrieli: No, that's right. College going and college completion are associated with many, many positives. People are more likely to vote. People are more likely to be civically engaged. People are obviously far more likely to earn incomes commensurate with getting into the middle class, with owning a home, with not being dependent on social programs, such as Medicaid for their health, et cetera, et cetera. And so on the upside and of course the economy grows faster. I mean, around the world, college education rates are highly related to economic growth rates and success rates. So there's a lot at stake. And then in this moment where we're so much more focused and as we should be on the equity considerations, this is the ultimate inequality widening situation. Here in Massachusetts, we shared data last year that only got some amount of attention that showed that the gap in four year college completion rates between low income students and middle income students and between black and Latino students and white and Asian students has been growing, not shrinking in the last 20 years.
And the reason is not because there's been no progress for low income kids or students of color, but the middle class is stepping on the gas harder. And so the rate with which they are accelerating their participation in college, which is felt in the common press as competition for slots at every competitive college in America means that they're leaving the rest of our population even farther behind. And this is just not something we can tolerate as a democracy, as an economy, as a society. Part of the problem is it's not any one colleges narrow fault and any one colleges, would love to serve more students, unless they're lucky enough to be among the selective few, also often have a big endowment to boot. This is a tragedy of the comments.

Jill Anderson: My understanding is that young people are choosing to go to work and not go to college. That the unemployment rate is fairly low. And there's a lot of jobs out there, especially right now. People might hear that and say, isn't that a good thing?

Chris Gabrieli: Right. First of all, those gaps I'm describing were expanding well before this moment in time. So I don't think those are just rooted to the current. It is certainly true that in the pandemic, no doubt, many people have gone more to work and gone to work earlier and stayed with work. But that's an example of one of the challenges we have. Look, the majority of college students in America today work a full time job. So one of the questions is how do you make college and work compatible with each other? So I'm excited about breakthrough ideas, like some of the work that Southern New Hampshire University and Western governors and others are doing, where they have competency based degree programs that are far more compatible with working adults than highly structured, highly scheduled schools. The cost of higher education is obviously really off putting to many people who are working.

So I don't think we should say that students should be either working or learning. The students should be able to both work and learn. And that's a real challenge to the traditional higher ed model, which is kind of rooted in a more leisurely, comfortable pace of, I live in a dorm full-time and I go to college full-time. That's 18% of the enrollment in American higher education is full-time people, students living on a campus dorm. So even though almost every influential policy maker has that picture in their mind, either of where they went to college or certainly where they expect their kids to go to college, that is again an example of the inequality in our society. That they're not necessarily thinking through the vast majority of students who need to work and go to college at the same time.

Jill Anderson: What is early college and how does that help?

Chris Gabrieli: Early college is an exciting structural change that's aimed at addressing this kind of gap in particular. So early college is a joint venture between a high school and a college under which high school students largely in 11th and 12th grade, but sometimes as early as ninth start taking meaningful numbers of college courses as dual enrollment in the sense of it counts for their high school and their college requirements. But these are college courses taught by college teachers, either at the high school or at the college itself. In logical pathways, so they're moving towards degree programs towards careers. Obviously they may switch around because at that age they don't know what they want to do. But not just random college courses and doing with high levels of support, all of this targeted to low income students, students of color, the students who are least likely to succeed with.

So lots of upper middle class kids have historically taken an occasional college course. That's not what early college is. Early college is focused on the high schools where we have large concentrations of low income students and students of color. We have 31 of them here in Massachusetts. They have about 4,500 students in them now. They're getting large amounts of college credit and the data from randomized trials in North Carolina and Texas who have been leaders in this field show that students who go to early college from those kinds of backgrounds, first gen college goers really are far more likely to complete their degrees subsequently. They also do it faster and cheaper because they have a significant amount of college under their belts. In Texas, there are 80,000 students in early college, high schools, 40% of them graduate with an associates degree on the day they get a high school degree.

So they don't just have a taste of college. They have a college degree on the same day. We need to see that happen in Massachusetts and a lot of other states. A lot of federal policy right now is actually not helpful. Pell grants are only eligible for you if you happen to be a high school graduate. You could take the exact same college course, but if you're not yet a high school graduate, the Pell grant is not eligible for you. That's a crazy outdated concept of who's in college. What's driving things positively forward now are state actions. So here in Massachusetts, governor Baker and the legislature with leadership with really the two boards Board of Higher Education, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have come together. What's tricky about this, students love it, families love it, high schools and colleges lean into it, but it's two silos.

Historically American high schools and American colleges have not actually been highly compatible. Many courses have very similar content. Algebra two is a classic high school course and a classic country level math course in college. Why is it not one course with all the same content aligned on and credit in both categories? Just because it takes more effort. That's the only reason it hasn't been. Frankly, a little bit better for traditional business models. If each person gets to deploy it the way they want to, each institution does, but for the student, why shouldn't you just do it once, do it well, and have the full credit for both?

Jill Anderson: Right. That makes a lot of sense. And so it sounds like there are obviously some issues with early college. It's not the perfect home run, but it kind of hooks kids.

Chris Gabrieli: It smooths their transition,

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Chris Gabrieli: To make it very credible to them that they can and should go to college, that they're capable of college work to build up a college transcript, which is totally transferable to other colleges. It's very important. We enforce that. Colleges need to take the credits from each other. Here within the Massachusetts, we have a pretty good regulatory scheme at the Board of Higher Education, Department of Higher Education allows a student who might be taking those courses with a community college partner to go down the street to UMass. That's our number one destination for students in Massachusetts who've been in early college. They typically take their course with a community college partner. And the number one place they've been going is UMass's four year programs. That's great. UMass is an excellent university and a great opportunity at an affordable rate with first rate academic profile. Love to see that happen. Really important that they get those credits as they transfer with them.

So creating, modernizing our system to allow these things to flow together and then doing it at the scale that would bend equity. Because that's the other issue we have in education reform. An independent think tank has given a number. If Massachusetts got to 45,000 students, about 10 times where we are now, we would, if we just cut the success rate we're having now and serve the type of students we're serving now, we would deduce the gap in outcomes for low income kids and kids of color by a quarter, the gap that they now have just by doing that. That's not about improving college. We're doing a lot to do that. That's not about improving high school and the academic skills. Just by creating this merged melded early college device we could really shift the equity outcomes here in Massachusetts. And that's happening in other states too and we need to make it happen much faster.

Jill Anderson: What about those young people who leave high school, go into the job market? The longer you put it off, the harder it's probably going to be to go to college. Are there ideas for how to bring young people back to college?

Chris Gabrieli: There are. I think it's an area that a lot of states are starting to wake up to really focus on, not just young people, but sort of people into their 20s and 30s to say, wait a minute, we can't just say, we're going to get this right for your kids. We got to help students have ways to get back on the ramp themselves. Most adults, working adults are used to the idea now that you have to continuously learn throughout your career. Most of us use all kinds of software and do all kinds of techniques that we certainly didn't learn in college in part because they didn't exist as concepts when we went to college. So continuous learning for adults, whether it's getting that degree or going beyond has got to be the future to keep up with the pace of new ways of doing things.

So I think that's a really important area. Our traditional system tends to think about college students as 18 year olds. So you're absolutely right. We also have to be more open, and I think we are starting to be to the idea that a full college degree while a convenient marker and a good business model for a college, oh, you're going to be here for four years. We have an idea of how much you're going to pay and what kind of resources we're going to need is not necessary for many student. And so when governor Baker came with us to see one of the early colleges at Chelsea High School, two of the four students there said they want to be an emergency medical technician, an EMT. That's a certificate program that requires courses offered largely by colleges. In this case, they were getting it from Bunker Hill Community College, which does not even require an associate's degree.

What it requires is a particular professional certificate. An EMT is a great first rung in the ladder of the middle class, a first rung in the healthcare model. You'd like to see those folks go on maybe eventually, if they want to, to more advanced degrees like a nursing degree, that's up to them. But getting at least that first rung whether with a college partner or something beyond that is probably crucial if we're going to really give people the skills they need to succeed and to contribute. So that goes well beyond the traditional notion of sort of a general liberal arts degree, as much as that can be a wonderful degree too.

Jill Anderson: There are so many moving pieces,

Chris Gabrieli: There really are.

Jill Anderson: To this. It makes me a little nervous, because I think about long term, the next 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years. How on earth is this going to get done? It's just so much stuff that needs to happen.

Chris Gabrieli: This is not to get too philosophical, but one of the great challenges I think facing the education and really healthcare segments of our economy and society are they have not innovated at the pace that all the other areas have. So you and I are conducting this call with software that didn't exist a few years ago, on computers living on ships that didn't exist a few years ago, et cetera, et cetera. Right. I mean the world, in the middle of this pandemic, we've seen the extraordinary technology undergirding that has allowed such dramatic changes in how every other segment of the economy and society work. And yet education is so conservative. People expect college to be so much like the college they went to. In fact, many people enthusiastically give contributions as alumni to the college they went to kind of, so it's just like the one I went to. Right.
That's a terrible idea. You wouldn't say, I hope almost anything else is just like, here's your rotary phone, just like the one I grew up with or here's your Abacus, just like the one I did my accounting with, right? I mean silly. But education has to pick up its pace of change. That's a culturally big challenge for education, which has valued consistency, and harmony, and tradition. And I mean not too many other fields have people put on robes and speak Latin once a year at an event and sort of celebrate that. I mean the Catholic church moved off Latin sooner than many colleges have.

Jill Anderson: Sorry, Got to laugh at that.

Chris Gabrieli: Absolutely. And I'm not kidding thing about that Latin. My daughter who graduated with a masters at Oxford, the entire program is in Latin at her graduation and she, and many of the other guests thought it was great. They had no idea what was being said, but man, I must be [crosstalk 00:14:27] because it was in Latin and I get it. Oxford goes back to... But I think we need to be priding far more the pace with which we accelerate change and adapt. Here at HGSE as an example, we had to change a lot in order to adapt to the pandemic and we added a whole large number of students who are now in a two year part-time program. And it turns out it's a great idea. It's not just an emergency measure in the middle of a pandemic, turned out we weren't serving working adults.

You mentioned working adults earlier. We did not have a master's program where a working adult could continue to go and also get their master's here. And there are some of the best students in our school. We love the full-time students on the campus too. And I love seeing them, but I chose to make my class what's called a flexible class so that students who are working in all parts of the country and world could also attend and participate in my class, because I think we have to change our habits. So I teach my class from six to nine o'clock at night, which means you got to figure out when you shovel your meal and all the rest, but you know what, let's get going with it right now.

Jill Anderson: You mentioned Southern New Hampshire University. We had the president on and to talk about a lot of the changes that they had put in place. And I know you mentioned they had some different modeling. So there are places out there offering some innovative and creative ways for people to become enrolled. But generally I think if you look at the model across the country, it's probably-

Chris Gabrieli: We're still too slow moving.

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Chris Gabrieli: Yeah. And I think that again has to do with the comfort zone for everybody. And of course we welcome 18 year olds who come ready to engage in a position to go full time. That's great. It's a wonderful tradition, but we need to embrace a far wider range of people. We need to make things happen more quickly. We need to go in many cases, year round. I mean, one of the things Southern New Hampshire does with one of their most cutting edge things, they have a partner here in Boston called Duet they do it with. They have six different starting points per year. You go year round, you go at the pace you're able to go. Some people go very fast. Some people take longer. It's a very different sort of feel to it. It's competency based education where you have to prove you have the skills, not just the seat time. That's a really big set of changes.
And so yeah, I do think it's crucial. We create the incentives and the culture that embraces the rate of innovation. We kind of expect that in medicine. Healthcare system doesn't innovate it fast enough, but the medical, we couldn't wait for that Moderna vaccine and that Pfizer vaccine to come out. Right. I mean, if they can move that fast, we need to move that fast.

Jill Anderson: How do we light that fire and get this going? Because time is just ticking away. We've already been sitting on these declining enrollments for at least 10 years, if not more at this point. So this is not a new development.

Chris Gabrieli: No, I think that's right. I mean, one of the most important things is we have to become more results-oriented. So the way, for example, we accredit institutions is far more based on the inputs. The quality of the plans laid out by the departments for their curriculum and so forth, the library and other resources and the rest and not enough at all on return on investments. So for example, there's been new data put out by the US Department of Education on programs across the country. And while it turns out many college programs have great paybacks. And I don't think you should go to college just to make more money, but many have great paybacks, about a fifth of all college programs. You literally lose money. You never make back. If you borrowed the money to pay for it, you would never make back what you paid based on the salary you will get afterwards.

I think we have to ask some hard noes questions about it. Are those the outcomes? And if somebody willingly wants to go into one of those fields, because they have just compelling need to try to be a performance artist and they went into a... Great, fine. I respect that. But if they get into a program where they didn't really understand that this was a program that was never going to pay back enough, because they don't know enough about the jobs that are available as a result of that and so on, is that really the college celebrating the full breadth of mankind's thinking and knowing? Or is that the college frankly, honestly, somewhat exploiting students who's naivete at age 18, maybe or older, maybe very high about which career paths lead to what kinds of outcomes. So I think we have to be much more results oriented. That I think would help drive the pace of change.

Jill Anderson: So something I did want to talk to you about, but I'm going to ask you that just in the last few minutes, was a little bit about the responsibility of the federal government to help out in this area.

Chris Gabrieli: Now the federal government is a key player here. We have to remember that when we think of the federal government and its very aggressive role it played in the middle of the 2010 crisis in K-12 in the area where the federal government pays less than 10% of the cost of our system. It's largely born locally by taxpayers in school districts and by states. And then we contrast that with higher ed where the federal government is by far the largest check writer between Pell grants and the huge student loan programs. The federal government is a massive payer of the cost of college education and funder. We continue to be old fashioned there too. The US Department of Education secretary is routinely a K-12 person, even though they are an enormous financial player in higher ed. And their regulatory rules there are completely dominant because you cannot essentially run a modern college without getting federal money, both on the research and development side, but particularly on the student financing side.

And yet they have been kind of slow to move forward. There are years and years behind at higher education act reauthorization. There was a lot of politics around the slogan, free college. It's a vision, it's a dream, it's a goal. It really turned into community college, but it wasn't a well thought through proposal, to be honest. And it's been already dropped out of Build Back Better discussion. So even if Build Back Better moves forward, that has been widely understood to be not going to happen.

And so at the moment, the federal government position is essentially laissez-faire on a system that costs too much, has grown faster than healthcare inflation. This is an amazing fact. Higher education costs have grown faster than healthcare inflation, which is just really breathtaking. It's why the middle class who's footing a lot of that bill is so nervous about the cost of college and yet at the same time, it has not been the access point to broadening equity. It's actually exacerbated the inequity in our society. So the federal government needs to wake up, smell the coffee and be more responsible financier and regulator of higher education, if we want the kind of higher education outcomes. We don't want to crush the beauty of the diverse American higher education system with many different levels, with many private colleges as well as public. But we sure as heck need a more responsible primary sort of driver in the federal government.

Jill Anderson: Hmm. Well, I almost want to end on a positive note, but I don't know if there is a positive note to end on.

Chris Gabrieli: No, I think the positive note is the higher education system continues to be a bastion of so many of the values that we wish our society to have of free and open inquiry, of advancing the frontiers of knowledge, of helping people think about what their true potential is. At every graduation there are so many students who step forward who are first time college graduates and particularly in public higher ed, I can tell you that it's a routine thing when I go to community college, state university graduations that they ask every student who's a first generation goer to stay standing and most of the audience stay standing. So it's wonderful to see. The statistical percentages tell us those are unfortunately closer to outliers than the mainstream. So it is beautiful to see that happen and it has got to become far more mainstream.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much, Chris.

Chris Gabrieli: Thank you. It's a real pleasure to be with you.

Jill Anderson: Chris Gabrieli is chairman of the Massachusetts board of higher education and a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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