Americans Are Losing Faith in the Value of College. Whose Fault Is That?

With those odds, it is not a surprise that young Americans, especially, are eager to believe that they will be able to thrive in the job market without having to worry about college. Remember that 45 percent of Generation Z respondents this year told pollsters that they believe that a high school diploma will be enough to ensure financial security.

The reality, though, is that in the decade ahead, opportunities for those without a postsecondary credential are projected to shrink even further. It is true that there are still some well-paying jobs that don’t require a degree — plumbers make a median of almost $60,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — but the B.L.S. predicts that fewer than 10,000 new plumbing jobs will be created in the United States between now and 2031. The fastest-growing jobs available to those with only a high school diploma, meanwhile, are mostly low-wage service jobs: home health aides (924,000 new jobs by 2031), food-service workers and waiters (570,000 new jobs), restaurant cooks (419,000 new jobs) and warehouse workers (358,000 new jobs). None of these jobs have a median salary above $31,000 a year.

At the same time, economists expect demand for American college graduates to keep rising faster than colleges can keep up, which means the college wage premium is likely to increase as well. A 2018 report by the consulting firm Korn Ferry projected that by 2030, the American labor market would face a significant shortage of workers with associate and bachelor’s degrees — a shortage of 6.5 million college grads, to be precise. More recently, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as the chief economist of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, wrote, with Tom Lee, a series of papers predicting an even greater shortage: 8.5 million missing American B.A. holders by the end of the decade.

For the nation’s more affluent families (and their children), the rules of the higher education game are clear, and the benefits are almost always worth the cost. For everyone else, the rules seem increasingly opaque, the benefits are increasingly uncertain and the thought of just giving up without playing seems more appealing all the time.

But just as individual students pay a cost in lost wages when they opt out (or drop out) of college, there is a larger cost when millions of students do so — especially as other nations keep charging ahead. Holtz-Eakin and Lee calculated the price to the American economy of the millions of missing college grads they are projecting: $1.2 trillion in lost economic output by the end of the decade. That is one cost we are likely to bear together, winners and losers alike.

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