“Too many people are going to college,” writes my American Enterprise Institute colleague Charles Murray. That’s not a response to the mob of students that attacked him and the liberal professor who had invited him to speak back in March at Middlebury College. It’s the title of the third chapter in his 2008 book Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.
Since Murray wrote those words, higher-education enrollment has in fact declined, from 20.6 million in 2011 to 19 million in 2006, according to Ohio University economists Richard Vedder and Justin Stehle writing in the Wall Street Journal. That 8 percent drop is concentrated in community colleges and for-profit schools.
But enrollment has been no better than flat at large four-year universities, and law school enrollment plunged 31 percent from 2010 to 2015. And freshman enrollment at the University of Missouri fell 35 percent since the riots in which a faculty member called for “muscle” against a student journalist and administrators caved in to rioters’ demands.
One reason for the flight, Vedder and Stehle argue, is that the costs of higher education keep rising while the returns for a college diploma are getting worse. Tuitions and fees rose 74 percent, adjusted for inflation, from 2000 to 2016, while the earnings differential between high school and college graduates fell 10 percent.