Nobody wants to go to college anymore

Skyrocketing debt, a focus on ‘employable’ degrees and post-pandemic revaluation of our life goals means that university admissions are tanking.

by Roisin Lanigan
02 November 2021, 4:17pm

Good Will Hunting

The myth that college offers up the best years of your life is, it’s becoming more and more clear, just that: a myth. While boomers and Gen Xers might have enjoyed a college experience that was relatively responsibility free, full of opportunities to find yourself and do as many drugs as you want before leaving relatively debt free and eligible for a relevant job; millennials and Gen Zers know that the reality of the modern day college and university experience is far from this. While yes, hedonism and friendship and the opportunity to expand your mind and horizons still exists, there’s also phenomenal and mounting amounts of student debt to consider, as well as a recent epidemic of spiking and sexual harassment and some of the worst (but expensive) housing you’ll ever live in. It’s perhaps unsurprising then, given all that, that college applications and admissions are in one of the most worst slumps in recent history. Welcome to your flop era, undergrad degrees. 

Nobody wants to go to college anymore. At least, that’s what new figures released last week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in the US, say. Their figures predict that college enrolment across the country is on track to drop by half a million students, following on from a similarly huge drop off of 400,000 students in 2020, which was thanks in no small part to coronavirus and the pivot to online learning (at no discount to the cost of admission fees). 

While some of those numbers are undoubtedly due to COVID overhang — whether that be a change in family or financial circumstances thanks to layoffs, students or their loved ones falling ill and the like — it’s not fully accurate to blame our collective falling out of love with the university experience squarely on the pandemic. In fact, admissions in the US have been on a downward trajectory since as far back as 2012. And it’s not a huge leap to attribute that plummet in graduate numbers to an exorbitant rise in student debt: recent reports estimate that grads in the USA owe a mammoth $1.6 trillion in student debt, and thanks to ridiculous interest rates, which make the prospect of ever paying the debt back insurmountable, that number is only set to rise higher. In the past ten years alone, US student debt has increased by 100%, while in the same time period, the minimum wage has hardly budged.

In the UK too, fees and loans have made university increasingly inaccessible. Since the yearly fee was tripled by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010, student debt has continued to rise, and new proposals by the Tories to cut the earning threshold at which graduates must begin to pay back their loans — as recently as last month the Treasury was reportedly planning a shake-up that meant graduates would pay more, for longer — will only make the already phenomenally high cost of higher education less accessible. Adding to that the government’s recent push against applications for “low value” degree courses (the arts and humanities, basically) and the impact of Brexit on traditionally popular university perks like the Erasmus programme, which allowed British students to study for a year at a university in Europe, you might expect a similar drop off in admissions in the UK. 

Despite the bleak financial situation though, it appears that university admissions in the UK haven’t seen the shift the US is experiencing — in fact, many institutions reported record numbers of freshers in 2021. However, while numbers of British students applying to university didn’t go down, Brexit has certainly had an impact on diversity of applications from outside the UK. This year numbers of EU admissions to UK universities plummeted by 56%, according to figures released by UCAS. 

But just because British teenagers are still going to university, doesn’t mean they’re staying at university, or that they have a rose-tinted view of their experience once they get there. As freshers weeks took place across the country last month, a wave of TikTok videos showing the cringe, empty and often lonely side of university that is rarely seen in traditional depictions of student life began to pop up across the platform. The videos showed empty nightclubs, awkward silences in shared kitchens and, for students in second and third year, the true hellishness of private accommodation, where slum landlords have left houses with holes in the ceiling, mould and damp erupting from every wall and doors that open to nowhere. It’s no surprise that many students are using the same platform to upload videos showing them dropping out of college and heading back home, often just weeks or days after arriving on campus, to do things that just seem… more fun?

It’s not just the cringe factor that has students turning against the hallowed tradition of uni BNOs either. There are far more sinister reasons why many would fear for their safety during the period of their lives when they’re supposed to be embracing carefree independence. At some British universities, notably Nottingham, a recent spate of spikings in clubs have left women both fearful and angry, not least because of the lacklustre response from the authorities (with police vaguely advising clubbers to “stay vigilant”). Across American campuses too, safety and sexual violence is a longstanding problem, with recent figures reporting that as many as one in five women of college-age sought help from a victims support agency (that statistic is especially sobering when you consider that many victims of sexual violence don’t seek help, meaning the true number could be far higher). 


So what does this admittedly bleak picture mean for students of the future? Is the Asher Roth era gone for good? The pandemic has certainly thrown into focus the possibility for different ways of life and career paths for many (leading to a so-called “great resignation” among those who have already graduated), which could arguably be trickling down to younger generations, who simply aren’t interested in following the traditional route to adulthood. But for those who are still interested in college, whether the downturn in admissions numbers can be reversed depends not on the students themselves, but on the institutions and governments that support them.

In the US, things looked tentatively optimistic when Biden put alleviating the country’s student debt problem high on his agenda after the election, promising to cancel $100,000 of student loan debt and overhaul the repayment process. But despite those promises, no major legislation to enact changes has yet taken place. And in the UK, where the budget was recently announced, any changes to student debt repayments seem to be geared towards hindering, not helping young people, and a spiralling house crisis makes the prospect of improved and fairer accommodation unlikely. 


It’s easy to blame a change in college culture and a downturn on admissions numbers squarely on Gen Z, who are frequently lambasted for killing off industries, being workshy and snubbing millennial binge drinking culture, amongst a million other things. But the sobering reality is that the onus is not on students to create a fun and enticing college experience for themselves. Instead it’s the responsibility of the people taking their money for the privilege to grant them a safe and financially accessible environment to do so.

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