Joe Henderson: Why is college enrollment dropping? Let us count the ways

092221 Budget Update RG 05 (Large)
A consistent conservative drumbeat is that universities are staffed with Communist professors who teach students to hate America.

For several years now, Florida high school students and their parents have heard the message: While a college education is a good thing, they can still have a good life without one.

Lawmakers, with justification, advanced the idea that vocational education can provide perhaps a more practical everyday skill than learning the works of Plato. A student can learn things like auto mechanics, plumbing, construction, the culinary arts, and so on.

You may never appreciate how much a good plumber is worth until you need one.

I bring this up because of a News Service of Florida report in The Capitolist. The story detailed a steady decline in Florida college students over the last 10 years.

The state college system has about 100,000 fewer students today than it did a decade ago. Educators, naturally, wonder why.

Theories include an increase in part-time students, perhaps because of work or other factors. The pandemic is part of this and could be a bigger part in the future, but enrollment was trending downward years before anyone ever heard of COVID-19.

I have a couple of ideas about this.

Although Florida does a good job keeping college costs down compared to other states, it’s still expensive. Maybe potential students don’t want to be saddled with debt just as they’re starting lives in the working world.

I think education burnout is an issue worth exploring, too. Students coming out of high school just spent four years stressing over their SAT scores and all the other things required to gain acceptance to the school of their choice.

The University of South Florida, for instance, reports the average high school GPA for incoming first-year students is 4.18. The average SAT score is 1,297.

Just getting accepted to USF or any other top Florida university isn’t easy. And that — wait for it — can lead critics to grump about the so-called “elites” in those ivy-covered towers.

A consistent conservative drumbeat is that universities are staffed with communist professors who teach students to hate America. It’s hyperbole, of course, but those repeated dogwhistles may have had a hand in plummeting enrollment.

Maybe it’s a combination of all those things — debt, requirements, other options, and maybe a sense that even with a college degree, some graduates will be lucky to make $15 an hour when they’re out in the workforce.

My late father-in-law, a professor at USF for many years, was a huge proponent of vocational education. I am, too. Neither of my parents graduated from high school, but that didn’t stop them. They made a good life for our family through hard work and perseverance.

The bigger threat these days isn’t from potential students who decide college isn’t for them. A more pernicious danger comes for those who lack critical thinking skills when they head out into the world.

That’s why so many Americans believe the oft-repeated lie that sinister forces stole the 2020 election.

That’s how we have QAnon and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

You shouldn’t need a college degree to know those things are bad.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


  • Charles

    December 16, 2021 at 8:06 am


  • PeterH

    December 16, 2021 at 10:54 am

    Great article Joe Henderson! There is a high demand for skilled sober truck drivers, construction laborers, hospitality worker, and retail staff. On the other end of the labor pool America needs educators, hospital staff and doctors and of course there is always a high demand for IT staff. The higher paying jobs in any of these fields require at least a College education!

  • Tom

    December 17, 2021 at 7:24 pm

    Come on Joe, just blame America’s Governor.

Comments are closed.


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