For decades, teachers and parents around the country have been repeating the same message to children: “To have a bright future, you need to go to college.”
But now, in Hawaii at least, it’s starting to look like the younger generation isn’t buying it.
Across the state, University of Hawaii college enrollment has plummeted by 15 percent in just six years, from a high of 60,300 students in 2012 to 51,300 as of 2017.
Trying to explain this decline, university President David Lassner pointed to the fact that college enrollment has been declining around the country. Some have blamed demographics, citing the decline in birthrates. Others blame economic factors such as an improving economy, which may entice high school graduates into the workforce instead.
In response, the state is attempting to bolster enrollment by (what else?) throwing money at the problem. There are proposals to increase education spending across the board, but in particular the state legislature during its past session approved the “Hawai’i Promise” scholarship program, an initiative approved by Gov. David Ige that will provide free community college tuition for qualifying residents, starting this fall.
“Qualifying residents” would be locals who are enrolled in a degree program, take at least six credits per semester and maintain a minimum 2.0 grade point average. Supporters of the free tuition program say it is needed to remove the barriers to higher education that prevent such students from succeeding.
But there’s another consideration they might be missing: This might just be a matter of supply, demand and perceived value.
As we all know, the cost of a college education has been increasing for years, so it was only a matter of time before potential students began weighing the costs and benefits of substantial debt and asking whether it’s really worth it. In an age of mobile-app startups and social media marketing, it might not be obvious to recent high school graduates that college can provide the employment skills they need at a price they can afford.
Instead, potential college students may be looking for ways outside the college system to make themselves desirable to employers. Apprenticeships, online programs, mentorship opportunities and entrepreneurship all provide avenues for jobs in the new economy. In fact, they may be a better way for ambitious young workers to set themselves apart from those with a conventional college degree.
Meanwhile, colleges are faced with a separate problem: What happens if the tuition money stops flowing in? UH President David Lassner has confirmed that tuition makes up approximately half the Manoa campus’ operating budget. If enrollment continues to decline, and student retention, which is stuck at about 75 percent, stays flat or also continues to decline, the school’s financial situation will deteriorate further.
Pouring state money into “free” tuition might stave off collapse of an imbalanced university system, but it cannot continue forever. If young people continue to reject the idea of a college degree and enrollment continues to decline, something is going to break. And it might be the state budget.
In the end, it may be that the market is finally catching up to higher education.
If students are no longer convinced of its value relative to its price, then either that value will have to increase or the price will have to come down.
Potential students are already looking at their options and deciding that college might not be worth the high price. States such as Hawaii might try to salvage their sinking state university systems by creating taxpayer-funded “free” college education programs, but it won’t be long before taxpayers start asking if it’s worth the price too.