In 2011, 43% of Americans (citizens or legal permanent residents) ranging from at least 18 years of age to less than 25 years of age attended U.S.-based postsecondary educational institutions that awarded associate degrees or better, which was an increase from the approximately 35% college-attendance rate for this age bracket in 2000. While a simple predictive model would suggest that college attendance rates for this demographic will continue to climb, such might fail to take into account the complex financial, educational, and cultural shifts that the United States is undergoing and is likely to continue to undergo in the future.
Rising College Costs
From the 1981-1982 academic year to the 2011-2012 academic year, the cost (in constant 2011-2012 dollars) of attending a public four-year college or university went from 6,942 USD to 16,789 USD. Although community college prices are lower, they have also increased during this time. There is no good evidence that this trend will discontinue, and prices may rise for many more years. This trend is at least partially responsible for increasing rates of default on student loans in the United States, and it may also make college appear to be a less attractive option to the young adults of 2040 than it did to previous generations.
Diminishing Differences in Global Labor Costs
On the other hand, the price of labor in Southeast Asia, particularly in major manufacturing regions such as Guangdong, China, continues to climb, and while labor compensation rates in those areas are still lower than those within the United States, the cost advantage of overseas production has gradually diminished and should continue to do so. Additionally, labor productivity within the United States has increased as wages have (when adjusted for inflation) dropped considerably from their 1972 peak. These factors stand to reduce the relative attractiveness of foreign labor when compared to U.S. labor, and their effects are likely to be compounded by several American demographic and culture trends.
Changing Expectations for Material Gain in America
The substantial post-1960s globalization of financial, industrial, and labor markets has caused the American way of life to come to more closely align with those of other nations, and there is no compelling evidence to suggest that this trend will not continue. The current model of community development within the U.S.—that of sprawling suburbs with no real center—places great financial, energy, and time burdens upon a considerable number of Americans. And a growing percentage of the population will come to see previous generations’ expectations of home and automobile ownership as being out of reach until late middle age. Living in American urban areas is often expensive, sometimes even more so than living in suburban regions and commuting to one’s place of business (although this is highly dependent upon vehicle, insurance, and fuel costs), and as many American families’ savings have been diminished through increased living costs and poor rates of return on investments and savings, they will become less inclined to help their children purchase automobiles—a trend that will be further compounded by increasing vehicle and vehicular insurance prices as well as the continued increase in medical and medical insurance expenses that will consume ever-expanding portions of the ever-diminishing financial pie of an aging population. This will make commuting from areas not served by public transportation a challenge for many people.
The financial unfeasibility of living and working in urban areas or commuting from suburban areas to work will make employer-provided housing an increasingly attractive option for young people. This market innovation may take any number of forms, including subsidized company housing and food allowances or company dormitories and canteens (as are oftentimes offered by companies in the Pearl River Delta region). If managed efficiently, employers may be able to limit compensation to very reasonable levels by providing employees with room and board that they (the employees) will consider vastly preferable to transient living with a restricted caloric intake. Additionally, the liability that companies will face when providing these services will be greatly diminished by improvements in surveillance technology (which will reduce the likelihood of false claims and actual instances of employee/employee or employee/manager misbehavior) and a growing willingness of workers to submit to binding arbitration for resolution of disputes over injury, negligence, inadequate accommodations, and deception.
Stated another way, while access to information, information technology, and entertainment will improve, Americans will otherwise become willing to work more and receive less. This has the potential to make manufacturing in the United States a more attractive option to cost-conscious industries. This will cause a growth of industrial labor options for young Americans, who will find themselves in greater demand than have young people in any previous time in U.S. history.
An Aging Population and the Need for Strong Backs
One of the principle factors that will result in a reevaluation importance of labor will be the aging of the U.S. population. While the average person may be able to engage in office work until he or she is quite old, physical labor sometimes proves difficult for those who are even in their middle years. Thus, an aging population will translate into a smaller percentage of the population who will be able to participate in the manufacturing or construction industries. Those of traditional college age may find that they will have more opportunities to support themselves through physical labor than they do today. This is not to suggest that many of these people will never attend college, but many of them may well delay this activity until they have been able to save enough money to pay for the experience without accumulating tremendous debt. Building such savings will almost certainly require more than a decade of labor and saving (optimistically assuming that one is spending very little, living in an employer-subsidized dormitory, and only eating at a company canteen), thus putting these people out of the traditional college-attendance age range by the time they have the money to attend.
Changing Educational Demands and the Limits of Student Pursuits
While formal education is likely to play an important role in American productivity and commerce for many more years, some of the most popular academic majors (such as business administration, psychology, education, and communications) may not attract as many students in 2040 as they do now due to the national economy becoming more production-oriented and a tendency for educational prices in the United States to continue to increase. The service sector of the U.S. economy, in which many graduates of humanities and social science programs are employed, will stand to shrink; the benefits offered to those within it may be reduced; and obtaining any employment within it may require credentials that Americans may find obtaining to be prohibitively expensive prior to middle age.
There will be a very real demand for individuals with certain types of academic training, particularly in the fields of engineering, science, and design; however, the pursuit of knowledge in these fields is demanding for many people. Given that the average U.S. ACT composite score in 2013 was less than 21, one may reasonably conclude that many students simply do not have the capacity to pursue degrees in the most challenging fields.
This confluence of factors—increasing college costs, a shift towards a production (rather than post-industrial) economy, more modest expectations for living standards and prosperity, an aging population, and a real limit in the number of students who can pursue the most demanding fields—will lead to a considerable drop in the percentage of the traditional college-age population (meaning those who are at least 18 years of age but less than 25 years of age) that chooses to attend postsecondary educational institutions in the United States, and by 2040, no more than 21.5% of Americans within this age group will be attending a regionally or nationally accredited U.S.-based community college, college, or university that offers academic degrees for which one must complete at least two years of college-level coursework (resulting in associate degrees or better).
A Note Regarding College Attendance Rates and the Types of Schools Recognized for the Purposes of this Prediction
All school attendance information in this prediction was obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and the NCES shall be the preferred information source for determining the validity of this prediction as of 2040. In the case that the NCES is no longer in operation as of 2040, the successor agency (if one exists) shall be used as the preferred information source. If no U.S. government agency publishes this information as of 2040, a different reputable source of statistics shall be determined by a qualified adjudicator.
For the purposes of this prediction, a U.S.-based regionally or national accredited postsecondary educational institution shall meet the following criteria:
It shall be accredited by a regional or national accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
It shall be incorporated or chartered either by or within a U.S. state, district, or territory.
The principle campus (or business office if the institution does not have a physical campus) shall be located within a U.S. state, district, or territory.
It shall award at least one academic degree for which one must complete no less than two years of college-level coursework.
Challenge Brant v Goble to a bet on this prediction!