The choice was all but made for Amy Pinkerton roughly 35 years ago.

“Everybody around me went to college,” she said. “So it wasn’t really like a ‘go to college or not go to college’ kind of decision. It was more like, that’s what you do.”

Now 52 and living in Cleveland Heights, Pinkerton is thinking more and more about the journey that decision launched. Maybe that’s because her podcast feed is loaded with episodes about how to navigate the college search. Her daughter is a senior at a private high school in the city who’s eyeing the next chapter. A 13-year-old son isn’t far behind.

The landscape is now much different for them than it was for Pinkerton.

Higher education is at a turning point, a situation bolstered as the pandemic intensified an enrollment crunch many colleges already were confronting. Many factors contribute to this, including a bustling job market and high college costs.

Changing demographics in Ohio mean fewer high school graduates. There are also far more post-secondary options now. This all comes at a time when attitudes toward higher education are changing and public trust in the institution is eroding.

And there are still the reverberating effects of the pandemic, which disproportionately impacted people of color and women. Enrollments at many institutions, especially two-year public colleges, plunged during COVID-19.

More than 710,470 students enrolled at Ohio’s private, public and for-profit institutions in 2010. That number would fall to less than half a million a decade later. The state’s public institutions saw about a 30% drop over that time.

This is a big deal for plenty of reasons. The region’s nearly 30 nonprofit higher education institutions are huge economic drivers. Many colleges here depend on tuition as a major income stream, and fewer students bring in fewer dollars.

Getting a degree can influence all kinds of things that matter to a community, such as how civically engaged citizens are and people’s life expectancies. And those with a four-year degree make more money than those who don’t: a reported $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings for men and about $630,000 for women.

Terrell McCann and Markia Wynn, seniors at St. Martin de Porres High School, in the commons area of the Catholic high school in Cleveland. Photo by Gus Chan for Crain’s Cleveland Business

Changing Demographics

One of the biggest problems colleges are staring down is Ohio’s demographic decline. High school graduation rates are projected to drop 11% from the class of 2019 to the class of 2037, a number that includes both public and private schools.

Some of the area’s less selective institutions have been looking to lure out-of-state students. A new University of Akron commercial is set to air for 12 weeks in western Pennsylvania, as well as the central and northeast regions of Ohio.

Kent State University has a “long-standing partnership that helps students in western Pennsylvania discover all that’s great about Kent State” with the Pittsburgh Penguins professional hockey team. The university’s website mentions that 371 first-year students from the state enrolled last fall.

But making substantial inroads into different markets can take a while. And, of course, those who are graduating from Ohio’s high schools might not want to stay around, though the majority of people who do enroll in college end up staying close to home. One estimate found the median distance was about 95 miles.

St. Martin de Porres High School senior Terrell McCann doesn’t plan for that to be him. One of the schools topping his list is Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta.

“I’ll be very honest, I want to go,” McCann, 17, said. “I’m ready to be on the first flight to Georgia now.”

He visited his dad, who recently moved to the state, over the summer. His father is encouraging him to experience life outside Cleveland, maybe even outside Ohio. And when McCann left Cleveland for that summer trip, he said, he felt like there was a weight lifted off his shoulders.

Jonathan D. Wehner outside his office in Berkman Hall. Wehner is the vice president and dean of admissions, enrollment management and student success at Cleveland State University. Photo by Gus Chan for Crain’s Cleveland Business

Attitudes Shift

The Great Recession was years ago — about 15 years, in fact. But Jonathan Wehner, Cleveland State University’s vice president and dean of admissions, enrollment management and student success, still thinks about it a lot, specifically the impact it had on people’s evolving attitudes about higher education.

He points to a national survey of first-time, full-time students that’s been conducted for more than 55 years.

In the 1970s, people identified several of their top reasons for going to college. One was to get a better job. Another was to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas. A third was to learn more about things they found interesting. Each occupied a similar slice of the pie.

By 2009, the top reason changed to getting a job. Wehner believes that the economic distress people were feeling contributed to the pivot.

“To me, that data suggests that there was a time where, at some point, people went to explore new ideas and meet new people and learn,” he said. “And then, after that recession, it seems like it shifted to be people went to college to get a better job. That was their reasoning.”

That seems to align with the experience Michael Dixon, 61, recalls. He and his peers at Wittenberg University “were in love with academia” when they attended the private school near Dayton in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he said.

“We loved debating things in class and learning stuff,” said Dixon, who lives in Cleveland Heights. “We had speakers come to campus. We were up all night, arguing and debating over their philosophies. Kids today, most of them are not like that.”

Some of those “kids” — members of Gen Z, to be precise — are losing trust in higher education. A report released in August 2022 from Morning Consult found that generation has higher rates of distrust compared to other age groups.

Trust differs between party lines, too. Those same findings point out 18% of Democrats tend not to trust the country’s colleges, compared to 33% of independents and 43% of Republicans surveyed.

Work and Other Choices

Maggie McGrath, executive director for the Higher Education Compact of Greater Cleveland, said there are significant challenges to helping some families and students understand the long-term value of a post-secondary degree or credential.

McGrath said the hesitation seems to stem from students not feeling academically prepared or family concerns over costs. College, in some places, can be expensive.

The total cost of attendance at an average public four-year institution here in Ohio is about $22,390 for in-state students, according to the Education Data Initiative. Nearly $10,000 of that is estimated to go toward tuition and fees. And as costs have gone up at four-year public schools over the past three decades, the amount of federal support provided has not.

The Cuyahoga Community College slogan is on display in the form of a metal sculpture on the Metro campus. Photo by Gus Chan for Crain’s Cleveland Business

There’s two camps of traditional-aged students McGrath said the compact is seeing: the first is set with their post-secondary plans, while the second has more questions or doubts.

“I feel like where we were sort of tipping the scale with those students, they’re not going anymore,” she said.

Many, she said, are choosing to go into the workforce. That was a common refrain during the past two years at places like Cuyahoga Community College.

The enrollment crunch hasn’t been felt equally across the board during the pandemic. Highly or more selective institutions came out far less slammed. The not-as-selective institutions could face credit pressures into the future, per a September 2022 release from Fitch Ratings.

Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, for example, saw about a 6% increase from fall 2020 to fall 2021. During that same time, Tri-C’s enrollment fell roughly 8%. Enrollment at two-year public colleges has been the hardest hit.

A full-time job as a warehouse associate at Amazon’s North Randall facility recently advertised rates of up to nearly $18 an hour. Jobs at some local fast food restaurants currently highlight hourly pay ranges from $14 to $18.

Target is advertising a cashier/front of store attendant role at its West 117th Street store with a starting rate of $15 per hour.

Bridgette Gray, chief customer officer at the national nonprofit Opportunity@Work, is seeing a similar trend with recent high school graduates and young adults. They want something quick that will allow them to make money faster, or maybe they want to get a degree but can’t afford it.

Opportunity@Work, per its website, focuses on working toward a future where “employers hire people based on their skills rather than their pedigree.”

“The way we talk about post-secondary hasn’t always been equal across the board,” said Gray.

To be clear, earning a degree from a four-year institution isn’t the best — or only — option for everyone. Some companies have reportedly eased up on degree requirements for applicants as of late.

But Ohio has stated a goal for 65% of residents to have a degree, a certificate or a marketable skill by 2025 to meet labor demands. Northeast Ohio is falling far short of that number. Just 37% of the region’s residents have a two- or four-year degree, per a report issued late last year.

Alternative Options

Rochelle Wolfe didn’t know what to do after high school. The now 31-year-old recalls that, back then, she wasn’t exposed to much in the way of post-graduation options. She decided to go into nursing, following the path of an aunt. It felt like a safe choice.

“I had a very limited idea of what was out there and what I might be interested in,” she said.

She liked her microbiology and chemistry classes at Stark State College, a two-year public school. But when it came to her nursing classes, she found she couldn’t open a textbook without crying. And at the hospital where she worked as a nurse’s aide, she said, it seemed like all of the nurses hated their jobs.

It all led Wolfe to drop out of college. She had just three semesters left before graduation.

The years that followed included a few different gigs. There were stints as a traveling farmer in Montana and Oregon. Later, back in Ohio, she worked at the U.S. Post Office. Eventually, she enrolled at a local tech bootcamp. She now works as a software developer at a law firm in Cleveland.

It’s a switch. Though she likes her job, waves of imposter syndrome still occasionally roll in. A colleague who works next to Wolfe earned a master’s degree.

“The idea that maybe I should have some more formal education, it crosses my mind sometimes,” she said. “But I can’t do online schooling. I don’t have the discipline for it, so it’s probably not going to happen.”

Plus, she still owes student loans from that dropped nursing program. Lots of people are in a similar boat. It’s estimated more than 45 million Americans hold a collective $1.6 trillion in federal student loan debt alone.

Boot camps, like the one Wolfe attended, provide an alternative route to a four-year or two-year degree. Tech giants Google and Amazon have gotten into the space, too, offering their own short-term credentials. Both credit and non-credit certificate or credential programs are aplenty at two-year public schools, too.

Finding Solutions

There’s seemingly no “one size fits all” solution. But aside from any individual attempts institutions may be working on, there are some bigger picture solutions gaining more attention.

Dual enrollment is one. Ohio’s College Credit Plus allows high school students to take some college courses for free. Research finds students who take this route are more likely to enroll and finish a four-year degree. But a recent report from the state auditor’s office found the offerings in Ohio don’t reach as many students, especially those of color and those who are economically disadvantaged, as they could.

The region’s institutions — don’t forget, there are nearly 30 nonprofit colleges and universities here — are working together, too. Five private colleges announced they’d join a statewide initiative in 2021. It offers more streamlined pathways for students at local community colleges to transfer to four-year institutions and earn bachelor’s degrees in English, psychology and biology.

Another partnership is the Ohio College Comeback Compact. All of the four-year public universities in Northeast Ohio — Cleveland State, Kent State, the University of Akron and Youngstown State — are participating. The local two-year institutions are, too: Cuyahoga Community College, Lakeland Community College, Lorain County Community College and Stark State College. Community partners like College Now, as well as the nonprofit Ithaka S+R, are part of the work, too.

The goal is to reach 15,000 local residents who have completed some college classes at one of those institutions but never earned a degree. That group also holds what is known as “stranded” credits, meaning their transcripts are being withheld over unpaid institutional debts.

The partnership would work to wipe away up to $5,000 of those balances — at Tri-C, for example, the average amount is about $1,000 — and release the transcript. That allows the student to re-enroll at any of the participating colleges.

Turning around enrollment trends isn’t as simple as, say, turning on a faucet or flipping a light switch. But it’s clear from efforts like this that leaders believe collaboration could be key.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

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