June 1, 2023 - 1:10pm

Fewer young Americans are going to college. For recent high school graduates, college enrolment is now at 62%, down from 66.2% in 2019. According to the Wall Street Journal, this is in part because of “brighter prospects for blue-collar jobs”, as the labour shortage has boosted wages for jobs that don’t require degrees. More broadly, the shift comes as Americans question the value of higher education. A recent survey found that 56% of Americans think the traditional degree is not worth the cost, versus only 42% who think college is worth it.

This trend defies an article of faith, as the American Dream has long been equated with going to college. As Barack Obama put it in a 2014 speech, “an essential promise of America” is that “where you start should not determine where you end up.” For Obama, the upshot was self-evident: “And so I’m glad that everybody wants to go to college.”

Many likewise treat college as a tool for alleviating poverty. Bernie Sanders, who has positioned himself as the perennial champion of the working class, popularised “college for all” as a political rallying cry and introduced legislation to make college free for most Americans. Of course, the rallying cry draws attention to skyrocketing tuition, which has placed an enormous financial burden on many Americans. But it leaves unquestioned — and indeed, amplifies — the assumption that basically everyone should go to college.

Americans seem to be rejecting this college-for-all paradigm. On the most practical level, this is simply a correction to a faulty assumption. It has never been desirable for everyone to go to college, which is ultimately a technocratic aspiration, not a democratic one. The four-year degree provides good training for some jobs, but poor training for others.

Of course, another reason Americans are saying “no” to college might be the aggressive ideological project adopted throughout American higher education. Under the innocuous-sounding banner of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), many universities now signal their allegiance to a set of principles that are in practice highly contestable.

Students are increasingly required to attend DEI training sessions and take DEI-themed courses, which often draw from critical race theory and fixate on race and gender. Many new faculty jobs require applicants to submit a statement on their commitment to DEI. Other faculty jobs simply call for specialisation in the themes of identity politics. The Ohio State University, for example, recently sought a professor of “Indigenous Feminisms” whose expertise might include “the potentials of women- and two-spirit or queer-led innovations in preserving embattled minority and colonized food/health/body/eco cultures”.

The college-for-all ambition pairs well with the edicts of DEI. For those still bought in, college is a symbol of self-creation. DEI serves to facilitate a kind of self-creation. It pushes students to embrace their “authentic” identities, to harbour scepticism toward the wisdom of the past, and to reject the constraints of institutions. It shouldn’t be surprising that the two arose in tandem. Now, both appear to be worn out.