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What college enrollment trends say about the new economy

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We know the Covid-19 pandemic has forever changed the American workforce. What we don’t know for sure is how the changes will unfold. Some are accelerations of trends that began around the time of the financial crisis in 2008 or earlier, while others were directly inspired by the pandemic. Still others were temporary dislocations that will return. But anyone can guess which changes are which.

Rather than focusing on confusing current numbers, we can get a clearer picture by looking at college enrollment trends. These represent decisions made by individuals today in view of their own long-term future.

College admissions have been declining since 2010 and have really taken a dive during the pandemic. This was mainly blamed on the lockdown, and many commentators expected enrollment not only to rebound as the pandemic subsided, but to top 2019 levels as students returned after postponing their studies. Instead, the numbers continued to drop. Enrollments fell at a rate of 0.8% per year in the 10 years before the pandemic, then 2.5% in 2020 and 2.7% in 2021. An even larger drop is expected for 2022 when the numbers are counted in the fall. These declines occurred even though the US population increased by 7% and a growing number of international students were included in the workforce.

There is a post-secondary education sector that is experiencing tremendous growth. Enrollment in two-year agricultural science degrees increased by 41% in 2021. Other popular two-year degrees include construction management – ​​up 18% – while blue-collar technical fields increased by an average of 7%.

It is important to understand that these are not “vocational” or “trade school” programs to give unqualified people basic job skills. Students in these programs typically work in their field of study and seek advanced instruction in theory and broader business skills so they can move into management positions or start their own businesses, working in positions that, in the past, would likely have been occupied by four-year college graduates with no specific training. As I was writing this column, I had my semi-annual HVAC inspection and both technicians were enrolled in two-year precision manufacturing programs, one to qualify for a management position and the other with the ambition to start his own business.

These figures are significant, with students enrolled in two-year programs representing approximately one-third of all post-secondary students. Although two-year programs have been hit harder by the pandemic than four-year ones, with enrollment down 15% since 2019, what could be called “science of the labor profession” degrees will against the negative trend. It could be a temporary hiccup caused by an exceptionally high demand for experienced professionals in these fields, with up-to-date technical skills and extensive training in business management. But I wonder if that wouldn’t mean the end of the traditional blue-collar/white-collar/professional distinctions.

The traditional thought was that blue collar workers learned skills by rote and needed to be protected from innovation. White-collar workers were expected to have soft skills that could adapt to change, and professionals were those who could bring about change and exploit its opportunities. But the experience of the last decades seems to indicate that it is the white-collar workers – mainly those with university degrees in fields not specific to the job – who have lost innovation, while the experience of the blue-collar workers has been more easily transported to rapid evolution. the fields. In many cases, it is former blue collar workers and college dropouts who are driving the change, not elite professionals with advanced degrees.

Many people see a traditional four-year liberal arts degree—with no emphasis on professional training—as the cornerstone of educated citizenship. As the costs of a college education skyrocket and the demand for these graduates languishes, it’s no surprise that their numbers are declining. Before the pandemic, the increase in the number of Hispanic, Asian and mixed-race students offset much of the decline among whites, blacks and Native Americans. But in 2020 and 2021, it is Hispanic and Asian students whose numbers have declined the fastest.

Some people will demand political solutions to increase liberal arts enrollment over four years, especially among non-whites. But perhaps a more egalitarian and progressive stance is instead to encourage two-year technical degrees that lead to the creation of more small businesses, more business promotions from within, and an upper middle class more diverse. Running a business or managing a team of people engaged in technical work can be as valuable a form of education to society as a four-year degree in literature or sociology. Of course, society needs both, but perhaps we have overinvested in the second and underinvested in the first.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Maryland takes a stand against college degrees: Tyler Cowen

• Two-year college degrees have lost their value: Justin Fox

• Can educational migration make the world a better place? : Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Aaron Brown is a former Managing Director and Head of Capital Markets Research at AQR Capital Management. He is the author of “The Poker Face of Wall Street”. He may have an interest in the areas he writes about.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion