PUB. 18 2021 ISSUE 3

18 AMERICA’S HIGHER EDUCATION CONUNDRUM By Mark Anderson, NMBA Legal and Legislative Assistant I n June 2021, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its Spring college enrollment data. The Spring 2021 semester found that college enrollment had dropped nearly 5% overall, a jarring decrease. This means there were approximately 727,000 fewer students than the year prior. There was hope that the spring semester would increase enrollment, but that didn’t prove the case. Now, given a myriad of factors, there is concern that the decrease in enrollment in higher education could become a permanent issue barring significant changes. This data illustrates an acceleration in an overall decrease in college enrollment that has been occurring since 2012. Some of this decrease can be attributed to both the health and economic uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are clearly deeper factors at work as well. There’s no doubt that a college degree, in a vacuum, is an overwhelmingly positive accomplishment. But because higher education in the United States is so expensive, the choice for individuals to attend college usually doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The pandemic has shown the value of a college education in America on both earning potential and the ability to weather economic hardships. Individuals with a college degree have been far less likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic and, if they have, had a much higher likelihood of finding another job. According to the Clearinghouse Research Center, “Almost all of the income gains and employment gains for the last decade have gone to people with higher education degrees and credentials.” There are tangible benefits to earning a college degree, but the cost and subsequent debt that can result are substantial factors prospective students must weigh. According to Federal Reserve estimates released in early September 2021, Americans owed a stunning $1.73 trillion in student loans, a 3% increase compared to quarter two of 2020 despite a lengthy pause on federal student loan interest rates and the elimination of billions of federally held student loans by the Biden administration. The situation has been exacerbated just in the last decade, as Americans owed $905 billion in student loans in 2011, meaning that student debt has increased by 91% in just the last decade. Millions of students in the United States are faced with the choice of not going to college – which damages one’s earning potential – or entering a state of crippling permanent debt. In most states, the average debt graduates face is well over $25,000, with some states exceeding $35,000. If you have $35,000 or more in debt, you face extremely long odds of achieving financial stability. You will have to