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Falling Behind: a lost generation of American students

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In the United States it was Generation X, or those that came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, that first earned the epithet ‘the slacker generation’. While their polar opposites in the UK were being stereotyped as the work-hard, play-hard children of Thatcherism, young Americans were characterised, sometimes affectionately, sometimes critically, as cynical, listless, and apathetic to the world at large. But the affectionate, happy-go-lucky laziness that defined American youth in the closing decades of the last century seems to have given way to something far less cheery. Young Americans are, more than ever, dropping out – and while their parents might have embraced a slacker identity before going onto largely conform as they reached thirty, today’s disaffection seems to be rooted in something far darker. Now, non-participation has none of the glamour and cultural recognition of the slackers; underneath it is tinged with despair. 

Nowhere is this change in attitude more stark than at American colleges. Students in the US are increasingly dropping out of higher education: according to US research body National Student Clearinghouse, there was a marked decline in the so-called ‘persistence rate’ at colleges in the US, with more and more young Americans giving up on higher education after a year. More significant perhaps was the decline in the number students attending college at all after high school, which dropped by 6.8%. This month the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 700,000 fewer students were enrolled in colleges in 2021 compared with 2019 – showing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but also no doubt wider economic trends as affordable college and housing seems to be consistently eluding the Gen-Z demographic. What is even more stark is that the numbers finishing high school at all seem to be on the wane, especially amongst boys, with both ethnic minority and rural boys particularly struggling. For many millennials and so-called Zoomers born into households that might be considered middle class, perhaps with their parents just catching the last embers of the advantageous post-war settlement, any chance to recreate the standard of living their parents enjoyed seems to be slipping rapidly out of reach. 

It’s easy to see why: America expects its young to sign up to ruinous amounts of debt just to attend the colleges that once promised a middle-class income and lifestyle. According to the US Department for Education, prices for undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board at public institutions rose 28% between 2008-09 and 2018-19, while prices at private non-profit institutions rose 19%. This seems like a significant hike, but it pales in comparison when compared with the price rise in college education over the past half-century: when adjusted for inflation, Forbes estimates the cost of attending university rose by 500% between 1985 and 2018. For a country that owed some of its substantial post-war economic and social growth to the GI Bill, that ensured college education, housing and unemployment benefits for ex-servicemen, this pulling up the ladder on higher education for young Americans today seems strangely judged. The average cost of tuition at private institutions in the US now stands at $44,662 a year, a figure which results in six-figure debt by the end of most college students’ degrees, and the social and economic impact of generations entering the workplace under the crushing weight of six-figure debt has yet to be properly worked out – with less disposable income and unlikely to be able to afford a home except in deprived areas, the question arises as to how millennials and Gen-Z will contribute to the economy and society when every spare cent goes to repaying their debts. 

This disaffection spells trouble ahead for already marginalised and economically deprived areas of the US, as students from those areas and backgrounds fall further behind. A study by Education Northwest found that rural students had lower rates of college enrolment, persistence, and completion than their nonrural peers, and that this gap was actually widening. When these students did attend college, it was most likely to be a community college rather than a larger academic institution. And in a country which has seen demagoguery and populism emerge from principally rural areas in the disadvantaged American rust belt, this decline in higher education attendance is worrying for what it presages about continued economic decline and continued political disaffection and radicalisation. If young people in rural areas continue to see jobs disappear, high schools fail and the cost in debt of attending college spiral to astronomical proportions, a sense of economic and social grievance and disconnection from the wealthier urban core of the east and west coasts is only likely to grow. Commentators often point to poor education and economic disenfranchisement for the rise of Donald Trump: what happens when people are voluntarily disassociating themselves from a young age? And what, outside of school statistics, will this mean for the skills and education of the next generation of young Americans as they go through their working lives? 

It would be wrong to overstate the scale of this dropping out – there are still plenty of young Americans buying into the system and heading to colleges, regardless of its expense and of wider socioeconomic factors. Indeed, according to American Student Assistance, there are now well over a million students in the US with student loans over $100,000, with the number growing every year. With the Biden-Harris administration now throwing the occasional bone to the left of American politics, perhaps some measure of student debt relief is on the horizon, but colleges may prove unwilling to give up their astronomic fees – and for Republicans that still cling to rugged individualism and despise the ‘liberal college campuses’ that the likes of Fox News loved to rail against, debt relief for graduates is hardly likely to prove a popular policy. Although it remains to be seen if a post-pandemic boom in enrolment is on the horizon, it seems clear that America’s youth are starting to question the necessity of college – and of starting their working lives six figures away from zero.

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