Recently, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) released their annual report on college-going rates across the State (see PARCA's data visualization below). While their headline shows that college-going rates may have overall declined in the face of challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabamians can feel confident in the fact that students pursuing a 4-year Bachelor’s degree has held steady at 30 percent over the last 3 years. Overall, Alabama’s college attendance rate has fallen by 4 percent in the last year, specifically seeing a decrease in attendance at 2-year colleges[i].
This follows national trends as reported by the National Student Clearinghouse, showing that the class of 2020 had an unprecedented decline in immediate college attendance, dropping 6.8 percent nationally[ii].
It is important to recognize the dramatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the high school class of 2020’s decisions. With their full senior year disrupted by the ongoing tragedies of the pandemic, many felt that the future was as uncertain or faced financial challenges within their family. One national study found that half of all graduating seniors in the class of 2020 have changed their college plans as a result of COVID-19. 40 percent also said their plans for paying for college had been affected[iii].
Alabama High School Graduation and College and Career Readiness
High school graduation rates across Alabama have increased consistently over the past decade, even outpacing national average graduation rates every year since 2014. Further, 80 percent of high school graduates in 2019 scored proficiently on College and Career Readiness measures[iv]. Despite interruptions from COVID, the class of 2020 still saw more than 75 percent of graduates scoring proficiently on College and Career Readiness measures. This leads to the encouraging idea that more of our young people are achieving academic excellence at the K-12 level. While a high school diploma will begin to open doors, our higher education institutions provide opportunities for students to pursue their full potential.
Alabama’s legislative leaders have focused on evidence-based ways to strengthen the K-12 education system. Their work on legislation like the Alabama Literacy Act and Teacher Excellence and Accountability for Mathematics and Sciences (TEAMS) Act in the 2020 legislative session shows their dedication to continuing to enhance education across the state.
While there are still many barriers to college attendance in Alabama, it is encouraging to have seen consistent strong budgets over the last decade. The Higher Education Partnership is grateful to policymakers and State leaders for keeping our universities at the forefront of their minds in identifying opportunities for growth.
The Remaining Challenges Facing College Enrollment
However, cost of college remains a barrier for many in Alabama. The SREB’s recent college affordability profile showed that, for the average Alabama family, it would take approximately half of their annual income to cover the cost of college for one student.
The Federal Reserve’s annual Survey of Household Decision-Making (SHED) revealed that concerns about cost were by far the highest barrier to attending college on a national scale, with 74 percent of individuals citing this as their main reason to not attend.
Public universities have 3 main sources of funding:
• State Appropriations
• Tuition and Fees
When one source of funding suffers, the others must compensate, putting University budgets in a tight squeeze as they try to protect students and families, while offering the highest quality educational experience.
Alabama’s Education Trust Fund Budget (ETF) continues to grow as a result of careful choices by lawmakers, but allocations for public universities still lag behind pre-2008 recession numbers when adjusted for inflation. While Alabama's State-level appropriations have begun to slightly increase again, nationally, State-level funding has decreased by more than $1,200 per student over the last decade, when adjusted for inflation. Alabama has seen a decrease in per student funding of more than 30 percent (1).
A business insider article analyzed the trend of increasing costs for college and found that state funding was one of the most significant factors:
“States provide less, and students and parents pay more… Studies have shown that when state support is level or increasing, tuition is flat. But when state support declines, tuition goes up. Roughly 80% of America’s students attend public colleges, so it’s not an exaggeration to say that the biggest determinate of the price they will pay for their education is the budgetary decisions made by state governments.”
– Terry Hartle, Senior VP American Council on Education, to Business Insider
As Alabama’s lawmakers work diligently to return allocations to their pre-recession amounts, the Partnership is grateful for their support of all of education from Pre-K to PhD. Their continued support in this journey will make college a more accessible choice for all of Alabama’s students.
College is a Good Investment, Especially in Economic Recovery
In light of any concerns about cost or economic instability, research shows that college is still a good investment both for individuals and for the state. Students who receive a Bachelor’s degree will make on average, $1 million more over the course of their lives than their peers without. Every dollar the state invests in higher education has a $12.50 return to the Alabama economy.
Find more about the benefits of a college education in our resource guide here.
More than this, recent studies have shown that in times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, sectors that rely on higher education were the quickest to recover and the most likely to grow. The Georgetown Center of Education and Workforce shows that after each period of recession in American history, the highest amount of job growth has been for those with a Bachelor’s degree or better (seen below). The SREB analyzed job markets across the South and found that this projection may have even more serious implications as a result of the pandemic. The reliance on technology during the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated automation by at least 5 years, meaning that 30 percent of current work activities in the Southeast could be automated by 2025[v]. Jobs that require Bachelor’s degrees or higher are the least likely to be automated, pointing to the increased value a degree will hold in the future.
So, what do we do about it?
As our universities and legislators work to make college more affordable and accessible for every Alabamian, the Higher Education Partnership turns to you – our grassroots advocates. As advocates, we’re asking you to take this story to your community.
Ask yourself: “Do you know a third grader?” If so, “Does that third-grader believe that college is an option for them?”
Advocate for every student to have opportunities to reach their highest potential at every level of education. In Alabama, currently, only 26 percent of the population has a college degree – 6 full points behind the national average. Use your voice to encourage legislators to continue prioritizing every level of higher education, from Pre-K to Ph.D.
Get involved with the Partnership here to make your voice heard!
We’d love to meet you in real life! Host a speaking event in your community by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ve been honored to speak at Civic Groups and Chambers of Commerce across Alabama over the last year. You provide the organization, we’ll provide the story of universities across the State of Alabama.
* The Caveat – Nationally, Graduate Degree Enrollment Seeing Increase
While undergraduate enrollment has decreased, universities across the nation are seeing an uptick in graduate degree enrollments, mirroring the idea that the job market will show increasing demand for professionals with higher education degrees[vi]. In the next ten years, the U.S. Labor Department predicts that jobs for individuals with a Master’s degree or higher will increase by 14 percent.
[i] https://parcalabama.org/alabamas-college-going-rate-down-again-for-class-of-2020/ [ii] https://www.studentclearinghouse.org/blog/fall-2020-college-enrollment-update-for-the-high-school-graduating-class-of-2020/ [iii] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/17/49percent-of-recent-high-school-grads-have-changed-plans-due-to-covid-19.html [iv] http://parcalabama.org/2019-likely-a-high-point-for-high-school-graduation-and-readiness/ [v] https://www.sreb.org/publication/pandemics-dual-threat-vulnerable-workers [vi] https://www.npr.org/2021/06/10/1005177324/spring-numbers-show-dramatic-drop-in-college-enrollment