Student Debt? Economy? What's Behind Drop In College Enrollment?

Reporting in CNN Money, Heather Long notes that college enrollments have been dropping since 2010. By the fall of 2014, they were more than 800,000 fewer students than in 2010.

Ted Mitchell, US Under Secretary of Education, suggests: "Historically, as the economy improves and Americans get back to work, college enrollment declines." Ms. Long notes that what's especially interesting are that the two sectors with the largest reported declines are community colleges and for-profit institutions.

Let's take the growing troubles of the for-profit community, with the implications for stable and growing enrollments in this sector, off the table. Beyond them we know that community colleges face declining numbers, many private colleges and universities are not meeting their freshman enrollment targets, and smaller, non-flagship public colleges and universities also suffer stagnating or declining enrollments. In addition, there are shifting demographic numbers as the size of graduating high school classes shrink in many locations.

What's responsible for the enrollment decrease?

Ms. Long argues that the problem is the cost of college, reinforced at the outset by the announced sticker price advertised to incoming freshman. After years of festering as a persistent issue, the consumer price sensitivity to high sticker price now translates almost precisely into an unwillingness or perceived inability to pay and assume the debt necessary to graduate.

It's especially troublesome because many of America's entry-level jobs require the certification of eligibility represented by a college degree. And yet the access points - most notably beginning with attendance at a community college - seem less vital and viable. It's a principal reason why the promise of free and debt-free community college tuition has become such a dominant theme in the Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

After the economic problems associated with the Great Depression and the need to employ millions of veterans returning from military service during World War II, the federal government created a series of programs for the growing American middle class to ensure its sustainability. One of the most important was the G.I. Bill, which provided unprecedented opportunity to veterans seeking a college degree as a ticket to move productively into the work force.

With these programs came a belief that "a college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class," as Ms. Long notes that President Obama proclaimed last year.

What's gone wrong?

One significant change is the failure of comfortable, disproportionately white, middle class parents to understand, and more ominously, prepare for their role to have "skin in the game." It's an economic problem if only because it's very reasonable to expect that these families should have an expected family contribution. What we often see today, however, is an unwillingness to make the sacrifices necessary to play a role, and allow and encourage their children to take on debt to avoid making harder choices within the family.

Instead, college administrators often reap what they sow. Presenting college sticker prices as an opening bid, families will negotiate with the admission and financial aid staffs as though they were purchasing negotiable items like a used car. In a college classroom, even after accounting for need-based aid, few students pay the same price after merit and other preferential scholarships and grants play out.

Somewhere in the past 50 years, Americans perceived higher education as a government entitlement program. Once sticker price, debt load and public perception collided, however, the public outcry over high sticker prices dominated even the most cogent explanations of what to expect and how to pay for college.

The most dangerous aspect of the growing crisis is the reaction to student debt. Much of it is troubling, particularly the very real problem of growing income inequality. Increasing the Pell grant will not fully erase public perceptions on college affordability. Tied to affordability - and therefore access - is student debt.

We can make a good case that there are categories of student debt. The numbers reported, for instance, are often "all in" debt, including that taken on for graduate and professional degrees. Those numbers, especially for high sticker priced graduate programs like law and medicine, can be staggering, especially if they are a multiple of undergraduate debt. The perception will stick even if the debt problem is often more complex than the media suggests.

The quicksand upon which the foundation for student debt is built is ignorance. Families that fail to manage or embrace debt based upon the implied promise of a higher starting salary in the workforce have every reason to be concerned and angry. The failure of colleges and universities at all levels to convey the true costs of attendance will only exacerbate the public shellacking that they receive in the media, statehouses, and on Capitol Hill.

America must determine quickly why college enrollment is dropping and if it's a function of an improving economy or something else. It must decide if a college degree is an entitlement like Social Security. But Americans must also be better informed about how to obtain access to higher education. To provide it, colleges, the government, and informed consumers must all be on the same page.