New Hope for Less-Selective Colleges

Vocational learning may save tuition-dependent institutions from themselves.

It’s hardly front-page news that trust in higher education is at an all-time low. But what is overlooked is just how dire the situation is for small, private colleges with meagre endowments. Last year, for example, 14 of these institutions closed, the victims of plummeting enrollment. In the New York metropolitan area, some institutions have been forced to sell off portions of their real estate to stay alive.

Such colleges’ plight is partially attributable to the falling birthrate since the Great Recession, but the far more important cause is the disconnect between what these colleges offer and what students want. A Gallup poll found only 26 percent of those surveyed believed that what transpired at such schools was “relevant to their work and daily life.” As a result, young people are bypassing them.

Reversing the bleak future for small colleges will require a radical transformation.Reversing the bleak future for these schools will require a radical transformation that many fear will undermine the very purpose of higher education. Converting them into vocational colleges, they say, merely trains young people to be replaceable cogs in this country’s economy. It unavoidably means fewer good citizens. That assertion, however, assumes that college graduates today possess the wherewithal to think critically. But, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa made clear in Academically Adrift, 36 percent showed no significant improvement in this area after four years of higher education.

Critics go on to warn that well-endowed institutions will continue to be little more than finishing schools for the wealthy and privileged, leaving others to provide vocational training for the rest of us. Yet even if that is true, so what? Why is vocational education inferior? In the educational marketplace, change is inevitable. Only agile institutions will survive. Higher education is a product that is subject to the evolving needs and interests of consumers. Purists today refuse to accept this reality, just as they opposed the creation of land-grant colleges in 1862 under the Morrill Act as a dramatic departure from the universities of the Middle Ages.

Community colleges are the best evidence that the goals of creating good citizens and good workers are compatible. In California, for example, students are gaining in-demand knowledge and skills while, at the same time, participating in civic life. In an op-ed published in the New York Times, Tom Hanks attributed his success to his two years at Chabot College, a community college in Hayward, Calif., writing, “That place made me what I am today.” In 2007, Santa Monica College launched its Global Citizenship initiative to prepare students for the 21st century through political engagement, entrepreneurship, and community service. California’s 116 community colleges must be doing something right along this line, because enrollment has increased by double-digit percentages after years of pandemic declines.

Change in higher education is largely fought by professors ensconced in their ivory towers and parochial research. It’s easy for them to oppose reform because they don’t have to pay skyrocketing tuition, with no assurance that what they study will lead to a well-paying job. Yet that is precisely the concern of young people today. Who can blame them? The humanities don’t have a monopoly on developing good citizens who possess the humility needed to respect points of view other than their own.

Although the transformation of colleges is being fought tooth and nail, it is already underway.Although the transformation of colleges is being fought tooth and nail, it is already underway across the country. From 2013 to 2016, for example, 651 foreign-language programs were closed, and majors in classics, the arts, and religion were eliminated or shrunk. In their place are programs in nursing, computer science, and business.

In 2016, Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky said that students majoring in the humanities shouldn’t qualify for state funding. Years later, in February 2024, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida announced an investment of nearly $25 million from the Workforce Development Capitalization Incentive Grant Program to create or expand 19 programs “dedicated to strengthening workforce development” in the state. It’s the latest evidence of DeSantis’s commitment to making vocational classes a major recipient of state funding.

Despite the uproar over the elimination of, or disinvestment in, the liberal arts, the metamorphosis of universities into job-training institutions is good for students, less-selective colleges, and the nation. Whether we like to admit it or not, education is sensitive to the law of supply and demand. The cost of a bachelor’s degree makes that clear. Since 1990, tuition has substantially outpaced inflation. As a result, students and their parents understandably demand evidence that the heavy investment they are making will pay off. It’s not enough to remind them that the value of a college degree can’t be measured solely by the marketplace. They already know that psychic income does not pay the rent.

That may sound cynical, but the touted wage premium of a degree is more nuanced than what most people believe. The Manhattan Institute, for example, reported that the top 25 percent of those with only a high-school diploma earned more on average than the bottom 25 percent of college graduates. A new study by labor analytics firm Burning Glass Institute and nonprofit Strada Education Foundation found that roughly half of college graduates wound up in jobs where their degrees weren’t needed. If that were not enough of a reality check, the National Bureau of Economic Research went one step further: “Although higher education may be financially advantageous on average, the flattening of returns as costs have continued to rise suggests that college may be an unfavorable financial investment for rising numbers of individuals.”

The good news is that colleges responding to these new realities will survive; those that don’t will go under. They can’t possibly compete with elite institutions that are heavily endowed. The irony is that brand-name schools are largely insulated from marketplace dynamics even though they don’t always offer a superior education. That’s because they’re essentially resting on their laurels. Truth to tell, so much of the worth of a degree comes from the signal it sends to employers that graduates were able to tolerate four years of lectures and assignments.

Colleges responding to the new realities will survive; those that don’t will go under.That’s where vocational colleges have a distinct leg up. By providing their students, at an affordable price, with the immediate skills and knowledge necessary for a well-paying job, they can attract applicants who are reluctant to take on heavy debt. The nation desperately needs them. Although it’s impossible to predict exactly which skills will be in demand down the road, it’s safe to say that those who demonstrate discipline will be highly desirable employees. It’s why those in the military continue to be in demand after they take early retirement even when they don’t necessarily possess a bachelor’s degree. Employers like their work ethic, which recent college graduates too often sorely lack.

In The Sheepskin Psychosis, published in 1965, John Keats wrote that college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. It is not an absolute determinant. That remains true even today. Yet we persist in telling young people that only a degree will assure a bright future. If that is true, how to explain the number of graduates working for minimum wages because they lack the necessary knowledge and skills that better employers demand? They’re living proof that a degree is no guarantee of viable employment.

In the final analysis, less-selective colleges that are nimble will find themselves on the threshold of a far brighter future than anyone believes. A new generation is hungry for them. It’s time to finally accord vocational education the respect and status it has never received in this country. Doing so will be good for all stakeholders.

Walt Gardner was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.