The higher education bubble has been rapidly inflating, threatening to pop at any moment. Over the past several decades, our culture has tipped the scales from praising and valuing education to downright socially mandating it. As a result, enrollment has skyrocketed to levels never before seen.
While broadening access to higher education is, of course, an ideal to strive for, we’re doing a cultural disservice to young generations by stigmatizing alternative options such as trade school. Increasingly, students feel as though they must get a degree to get a halfway decent job—or even just for the sake of social acceptance.
As a result, more and more students are phoning it in with degrees in increasingly bizarre and niche fields. These curricula equip them with a handle on abstract theory rather than tangible professional skills. After all, how many scholars of gender studies are actually sustaining themselves outside of the higher-ed bubble?
The status quo, which posits that a college degree is a de facto necessity, has enabled the higher education bubble to inflate … and inflate … and inflate even more.
In the past 20 years, tuition at private universities has jumped by 144 percent, out-of-state public tuition by 165 percent, and in-state public costs by 212 percent.
That is until the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise—and especially blindsided the higher education establishment.
Suddenly, students were forced to attend Zoom University from home, and many schools were so out of touch that they charged their pupils full tuition for remote learning.
Simultaneously, discourse on campuses became more politically extreme, and dissenting students felt increasingly alienated by a heightening illiberalism. A 2020 survey (pdf), for instance, found that 62 percent of students agreed the climate on their campus prevents students from saying things they believe, a marked increase from 55 percent just the year before.
This was further compounded by the economic strain posed by the pandemic. Suddenly, students were forced to take a critical look at their educational paths and the inordinate investments and/or debts required to achieve their goals.
The conclusion was clear: Colleges are not and have not been serving their students. The higher education bubble has popped. College enrollment plummeted by a shocking 25 percent during the pandemic as students around the country delayed or halted their degree progress entirely.
COVID-19 was a catalyst for revealing a truth the higher education world was not ready to confront— and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s an important moment for society to take a stand to reframe and redefine what higher education should be.
Our culture must begin to renormalize and celebrate alternative routes, making college an option rather than a social and economic necessity. As such, colleges and universities will have no choice but to once again view students as the consumers that they actually are.
The pandemic has proven to be a refreshing application of market pressure to higher education, which could have the effect of restoring academia to its ideals of open inquiry, free speech, and colorful debate. A college degree should be attained in the pursuit of truth, not status.