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Editorial: Enrollment declines raise deeper concerns

Sep. 23, 2013 @ 09:15 AM

Preliminary statistics show that enrollment at Marshall University is down about 2 percent this year, and a number of other state colleges have seen declines, too.

For Marshall it is the third year in a row that enrollment has been down. The university is working on several marketing fronts to help boost those numbers, but they face a troubling trend.

Nationally and in West Virginia, fewer students are going to college.

Only 66.2 percent of the nation's 3.2 million 2012 high school grads were enrolled in higher education last fall. That was down from 68.3 percent in 2011 and a high of 70 percent in 2009. Nationally, even some community and technical colleges, which have seen strong growth over the past decade, have seen some declines.

The college-going rate in West Virginia has never been that high, but through much of the last decade the state was making progress, going from about 52 percent in 2000 to over 60 percent in 2009. But for the last three years, that rate has fallen back as well to about 58 percent.

That is not good news for Marshall, which draws most of its students from within the state, but it is even worse news for West Virginia.

In a state that is desperately trying to build a more skilled workforce, it does not help to have 40 percent of high school graduates trying to start a career with no post-secondary education. The 20-25 percent of high school students who dropped out before graduation only adds to the problem.

The rising tuition rates and the recession are no doubt factors.

"I do think we've reached a tipping point in terms of what cost might do," David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling told Time magazine. "The cost of college is really beginning to alarm families. And that creates a real threat to enrollment."

The tough job market that recent graduating classes have faced has been discouraging as well. But statistics show that those with bachelor's and associate degrees are still fairing much better than job seekers with less education.

A Pew Center study found that only about 55 percent of those with only a high school diploma were finding jobs, even before the recession. That dropped to 47 percent in the years after. For those with associate's degrees, the employment rate started higher and fell less, from 64 percent to 57 percent. Those with a bachelor's degree stilled best, starting with an employment rate of 69 percent before the recession to 65 percent after.

The lifetime early potential also continues to be much higher for those with post-secondary degrees. Of course, it helps to look for degree programs that are in demand.

That is a message high school graduates may need to hear more than ever. Despite the financial challenges, some advanced training or education is what they will need to earn a living wage and build a brighter future.

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