Declining college enrollment is nothing new.
It used to happen before the pandemic, largely due to the high cost of tuition and housing at most universities.
However, due to widespread staffing shortages, especially in the blue-collar sector, workers without degrees are being paid more than ever before.
Conflicting trends are forcing families of high school graduates to consider more than ever before whether higher education is really worth the investment.
Part of Elijah Creel’s old daily routine is building a house outside Power Technical Early College in Colorado Springs.
PTEC is part of the James Irwin Charter School system, and approximately 400 students each day spend 2 out of 9 semesters learning a trade.
Some trades are more traditional, such as welding or carpentry, while others are more high-tech, including computers and 3D printers.
“They’ll learn how to use a hammer, they’ll learn how to read a bunch of blueprints, they’ll learn how to operate a machine like this, they’ll learn how to do a machine,” explains Rob Dougherty, founder and CEO of PTEC.
While Dougherty teaches his students not to chase a single dollar, the truth is that his graduates are in high demand by local businesses.
“They are offered jobs that, unfortunately, will pay more than our junior teachers,” says Dougherty.
Associated General Contractors of America recently found that the starting salary for non-supervisory private construction jobs has risen 6% just this year, the biggest jump since 1982.
Elijah hopes to get his electrical degree by the end of the year.
He is among the majority of PTEC graduates who choose to join the workforce rather than attend college.
“I feel like it’s not the best option for me personally. I feel like it’s too much work. I want to get out of school, right? I don’t want to go paying more and go into debt when there are better options,” he says.
Daughterty does not discourage college but believes it is not for everyone.
“If you knew what you would do, Why You study at a four-year school, then all the power to you, I think you should go. But if you can’t answer the question “what would you do with that degree?” Then it’s time to explore other options.”
The PTEC program has been gaining popularity since it opened in 2016, and the school will soon move to a new building that will nearly double the number of students who can attend.
At the college level, however, enrollment isn’t going quite in the same direction.
In 2010, enrollment at Metropolitan State University in Denver peaked at about 24,000 students, but around the time of the pandemic, enrollment dropped to 18,917 students.
It equates to a decrease of about 20%.
“(Recording) was a concern until we got into the pandemic, and then it’s been a major concern since that point in time,” Vaughn-Toland explains.
Toland oversees admissions and enrollment at Michigan State University in Denver and says the university has 4 million fewer students nationwide than in 2010.
Colorado schools haven’t seen the same declines as other states, but in its most recent enrollment report, “Pathways to Prosperity,” the Colorado Department of Higher Education found “For nearly a decade, Colorado’s college enrollment rate has remained flat..
In fact, a look at the data shows that the percentage of seniors commuting to college had already fallen by more than 2% even before Covid-19 lowered it further.
Toland believes that a college degree is still a sound investment.
“People with college degrees earn, on average, $1 million more in their lifetime than someone without a degree,” he says.
However, others believe that the salary argument for today’s graduates is not convincing.
“It’s not always true,” says Dougherty.
“I don’t think that’s as true as it was 20 years ago,” adds Scott Mendelsberg, director of District 11, who oversees college and career programming.
Mendelsberg says the high cost of tuition and fees have already become a deterrent for many families, and his students are now encouraged to keep all options open, rather than focusing solely on a degree.
“As long as they have a plan, and they have a chance to earn a living wage on that plan, not a job but a career, those are our aspirations for our students,” he says.
Mendelsberg believes that university recruiters need to prove to students at D11 and elsewhere that higher education is still the smartest move.
“It’s easier for someone to donate money to any group if the results are proven. I don’t think you can keep saying ‘give us more money’ and not necessarily explain why. And I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect there between institutions of higher education, not just in Colorado. I think It is a problem all over the country.
MSU-Denver has tried to sweeten it by waiving application fees, locking in tuition rates, and ensuring no out-of-pocket payments are made to anyone eligible for financial aid, a program it calls the Roadrunner Promise.
Tuition is also among the most affordable for public schools, at about $9,000 per year (not including housing), and its acceptance rate is among the highest in Colorado.
Toland believes that, in addition to the additional incentives, the message to students from parents and counselors that higher education is still the best option should be consistent.
“Everyone should be singing from the same songbook,” he says.
Toland also hopes the state will play a more active role in promoting Colorado colleges and universities.
Unfortunately, these higher education institutions are about to absorb another hit known as the “enrolment cliff.”
Toland explained that during the recession in 2008, the birth rate dropped dramatically, so from 2025 to 2029 (about 18 years after the recession), colleges expect a significant decrease in the number of high school graduates likely to transfer to college.
To make matters worse, Colorado hasn’t experienced nearly as much birth rate decline as parts of the Midwest or Northeast, and thus has become a popular area for college employees.
According to Toland, there are currently 50 out-of-state school recruiters in Colorado right now, making competition for a dwindling number of high school graduates entering college even more fierce.