Anti-College Reporting: How to Manufacture an Enrollment Threat

Travis Burchart
12 min readJan 11, 2024

According to Business Insider’s Ayelet Sheffey (Senior Economic Policy Reporter):

Gen Z is the new threat to the American college experience

Evidence of this threat? Meet Gen Z’s Sadie Shaw:

So two months after starting … [college], Shaw dropped out — and she doesn’t have a single regret. Currently making money as a TikTok creator and selling fitness plans online, along with working as a store manager at Plato’s Closet — a shop that resells gently used clothing — she said she earns more than enough to fully support herself financially.[1]

This is part of the great journalistic con, where a few stories represent everyone. There are more stories than Shaw’s. For every Sadie Shaw, thousands of dropouts (unreported) regret their decision. Likewise, thousands of college students celebrate their decision.[2] But why tell multiple stories when one supports your “threat”? Why seek balance when unbalanced sells?[3]

Polling Makes Good Filler

That’s not to say other evidence isn’t presented. There’s this too:

Business Insider, in collaboration with YouGov, conducted a survey in July of more than 1,800 Americans across five generations, with more than 600 respondents belonging to Generation Z and above the age of 18.

According to the results, just 39% of Gen Z said advancing their education is important to them, and 46% of them said they don’t think college is worth the cost.

There’s a problem here. Not “worth the cost” doesn’t equal dropping out or skipping college. While this is implied by the article’s title and the one story, the polling proves nothing of the sort. It merely represents a perception, not an action.

Not “worth the cost” is an opinion; it’s doesn’t reveal anything about a college decision. A college decision can suffer from doubt, but doubt can change. For example, doubt can be offset by something … scholarship money for example. Or doubt might be influenced by a parent … i.e., an influencer who believes college is “worth the cost.”

Here, polling adds good filler, but these opinions don’t necessarily reflect reality. “46% of them said they don’t think college is worth the cost,” but these headlines say something different:

So on one hand, “46% of them [Gen Z] said they don’t think college is worth the cost.” On the other hand, many colleges reported enrollment growth last fall. Business Insider stops at what is said; what is actually done … that’s ignored.

Blinded by the Expert

If one story and a poll aren’t enough, add an expert.[4] Business Insider cites Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School, for the following:

[W]orking as a truck driver, for example, could bring in six figures — and those types of wages for jobs that don’t require a college degree has spurred a rethinking of the value of higher education.

“Could bring six figures” doesn’t automatically mean “six figures.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2022 median pay for “Heavy and Tractor-trailer Truck Drivers” was $49,920 per year / $24.00 per hour. Moreover, Fuller neglects to mention:

a) “Jobs that don’t require a college degree” aren’t typically (or automatically) “six figure” jobs;

b) “Six figure” jobs aren’t the national norm (e.g., the average annual salary nationwide is $59,428); and

c) “Six figure” salaries aren’t the sole motivation for (or against) college attendance.

There’s also this question: Why isn’t Joseph Fuller — Harvard professor — working as a truck driver?[5] It’s because:

a) not everyone wants to be a truck driver (regardless of six figures); and

b) many people (like Joseph Fuller) want a higher education (i.e., they’re motived by learning, expertise, accomplishment, or experience). What’s ignored is that the “value of higher education” — as Fuller calls it — goes well beyond a truck driver’s salary.

Good Data Gone Bad

But what about the data? According to Business Insider:

Some colleges have been seeing a drop in enrollment as fewer young people choose to apply and attend. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, an [sic] nonprofit that provides education data, postsecondary enrollment continues to be well below post-pandemic levels as of May, with 1.16 million fewer undergraduates enrolling compared to Spring 2020.[6]

For this data, the article — published Dec 23, 2023 — cites the National Student Clearinghouse’s “Spring 2023 | Current Term Enrollment Estimates,” published May 24, 2023. But why this report when there’s a more up-to-date report — the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Regular Updates on Higher Education Enrollment — published October 26, 2023? According to the October 2023 data:[7]

· Undergraduate enrollment grew for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic this fall (+2.1%). Community colleges are starting to recover from the pandemic showing a growth of 4.4 percent this fall (+4.3% since fall 2021).

· Black, Latinx, and Asian students accounted for most of the undergraduate and graduate enrollment growth this fall.

· Undergraduates grew at both ends of the age spectrum, with students 18–20 and 30 or older each adding about 3 percent this fall. Those under 18 (dual enrolled high school students), however, continued to outpace all undergrads with an 8.8 percent jump.

· Among traditional-aged undergraduate students, enrollment is up across all neighborhood income levels, with students from the lowest income areas gaining 3.6 percent and those from the highest income areas gaining 1.4 percent this year.

The first issue … Business Insider focuses on old data while omitting new data. But there’s this too … Business Insider uses data to tell half a story. The cited data shows that:

[P]ostsecondary enrollment continues to be well below post-pandemic levels as of May, with 1.16 million fewer undergraduates enrolling compared to Spring 2020.

But here’s how the National Student Clearinghouse actually frames that data:

This final look report confirms undergraduate enrollment is stabilizing, with a mere 0.2% decline from last spring. [emphasis added]

The stabilization primarily stems from a slight increase in community college students, who have seen a 0.5% rise from the previous year. …

The decline at four-year institutions has also slowed, with a 0.5% decrease at public institutions and only a 0.2% decline at private nonprofit institutions. Consequently, the overall decline in undergraduate student numbers is only 0.2%. This trend represents a significant improvement compared to the nearly 4% annual decline recorded last spring. [emphasis added][8]

Here, Business Insider cherry picks the data. Citing the full report would be an admission that the perceived “threat” is either slowing, reversing, or stabilizing.

Building a Threat on Paper

Admittedly, higher education has its problems. It can be made better, but that doesn’t mean it’s unequivocally broken. Sadly, “broken” is the story often told; the press salivates at disaster, sometimes creating it when there is none.

It’s lazy — and reckless — to say that “Gen Z is the new threat to the American college experience.” One story doesn’t make a threat. An opinion poll doesn’t make a threat. A Harvard expert doesn’t make a threat. Cherry picked data doesn’t make a threat. Rather, these things are mixed and framed together, crafting a higher education story that feels “threatening.”[9] It’s the art of scary — a kind of fiction; it’s reporting that builds on fear, not reality.

[1] Shaw also says:

“It has been amazing for me to not be in debt,” Shaw said. “I have no student loans, like so many of my friends are in $100,000 in debt and student loans just to get a job that pays $60,000 a year.”

Shaw — a 22-year-old — appears to be a statical expert on student debt. The reality is that most college students aren’t $100,000 in debt, a reality that Business Insider doesn’t explore. According to Forbes, average student loan debt is $28,950.

Moreover, one should ask: Who exactly are Shaw’s “friends”? Business Insider doesn’t ask, letting Shaw’s “so many” suggest pretty much everyone. But the reality of student debt isn’t “everyone”:

Contrary to many public perceptions, the total annual education borrowing has been declining for the past 12 years. [emphasis added] For the 2022–23 academic year, this trend continued, with a decrease of 6% in total education borrowing after adjusting for inflation.

While the total annual borrowing has been on a downward trajectory, the report underscores a noteworthy shift in the distribution, with the share of total borrowing going to graduate students increasing. [emphasis added] In 2022–23, new loans disbursed to graduate students constituted 47% of total federal loans, marking a significant uptick from 34% a decade earlier. — Colvin, J. (2023, Nov. 12). The College Board Unveils Key Findings in 2023 “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid” Report. Georgia Independent College Association

So Shaw’s “friends” are actually trending downward in their student debt. Also, these “friends” (the ones holding the most student debt) aren’t younger undergraduates but older graduate students.

[2] Shaw’s dropout story is offered as proof that “Gen Z is the new threat to the American college experience.” But it’s poor reporting to represent an entire generation — i.e., Gen Z — with just one story. Spotlighting Shaw’s story (and only her story) suggests that dropping out is the new norm. But is it? According to the National Student Clearinghouse:

Of the 2.4 million students who entered college for the first time in the fall of 2021, 75.7 percent persisted at any U.S. institution by fall 2022 [emphasis added] …. This persistence rate is 0.9 percentage points above the previous cohort and matches the pre-pandemic average for the 2016 to 2018 freshman classes.

One story vs. the Clearinghouse’s most recent “Persistence and Retention” report (July 27, 2023), which shows that an overwhelming majority of first-time college students actually stayed in college.

[3] Coinciding with Sheffey’s article is this from Business Insider’s Tim Paradis (Dec 23, 2023):

I’m a GenZer who tried college but dropped out because of finances. Instead, I chose healthcare and plan to study cosmetology

There’s nothing wrong with this story or Shaw’s story; it’s important to hear the pros/cons of college. However, according to the October 11, 2023 Census Bureau Release, 17.3 million people are enrolled in college (2022). With college servicing nearly 20 million students, why doesn’t Business Insider spotlight any of them? Why do journalists ignore the success stories and the (good) motives for attending college?

This myopic reporting hides two realities: 1) many college students don’t dropout and don’t regret their decision, and 2) many college dropouts aren’t a success story.

[4] The article also quotes expert Ana Hernández Kent, a senior researcher with the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Surprisingly, Kent actually tempers the “threat” that’s inflated by the article:

Kent said that Gen Z is “being a little more critical” [emphasis added] in evaluating the risks of a college degree, and whether they truly need one to be successful financially.

Thus, Kent gives an unexaggerated assessment … i.e., that Gen Z is being a “little more” critical (less of a “threat,” more of a consideration). Consider the article’s title (and how it changes the story) if it had led with this reality (instead of “threat”):

Gen Z is “being a little more critical” of the American college experience

Kent is also cited for the following:

According to an analysis of the Federal Reserve’s 2022 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking, Kent found that less than half of Gen Zers who are Black, Hispanic, women, and went to college but didn’t graduate, thought “the lifetime financial benefits of college would outweigh the costs.”

However, the article neglects to report that the Results from the 2022 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (May 2023) also shows:

Education was seen as a path to higher income and greater financial well-being in 2022. More than two-thirds of adults with a bachelor’s degree or more said the financial benefits of their education exceeded the cost. [emphasis added] However, a lower 3 in 10 of those who started but did not complete at least an associate degree shared this view.

Moreover, there’s data (positive) that needs to be reported against “less than half of Gen Zers who are Black, Hispanic, women, and went to college but didn’t graduate, thought ‘the lifetime financial benefits of college would outweigh the costs.’” According to the National Student Clearinghouse:

Black, Latinx, and Asian students accounted for most of the undergraduate and graduate enrollment growth this fall.

Despite the reported perception — i.e., Black, Hispanic, women thought “the lifetime financial benefits of college would outweigh the costs” — recent data shows that Black/Latinx students accounted for most of the undergraduate and graduate enrollment growth this fall.

[5] Fuller has a Bachelor of Arts (history) and an MBA from Harvard. One would like to know: As a college graduate (with multiple degrees), what benefits — tangible and intangible, if any — does Fuller associate with his education? This question is never asked.

[6] In his article “Take a Real Look at College Enrollment Figures” Derek Newton, writing for Forbes, says:

The actual [college enrollment] numbers tell a different story. If you actually look, it’s easy to see that over the past decade enrollment squeezes are isolated to specific sectors and not nearly as dramatic or drastic as the doomsayers say.

Newton points out that net student lost — 2.4 million over 10 years — can be attributed, for the most part, to community colleges and for-profit colleges, which alone account for about 2.2 million of these students. In terms of decline, the story isn’t as scandalous as the media makes it out to be. In fact, as Newton tells it, the story is more optimistic:

Granted, the big state colleges and universities saw their attendance numbers slowly rise for the first eight years of the past decade, only to see them drop noticeably during Covid, as many students understandably decided that an online college experience was not what they wanted. Still, the net drop [over 10 years] was just 100,000, about 1.2%.

But the losses aren’t the story. The non-losses should be.

In the private, four-year college sector — the very one most pundits said was most at risk — enrollment is actually up slightly. Yes, up. Ten years ago, 3.929 million students went to private four-year colleges. [Education writer Phil] Hill’s estimates this year are for these colleges to enroll 3.971 million. More, in other words.

“More, in other words” … a vastly different higher education story than the one told over and over by the media.

[7] For the sake of balance, not all the data is positive. According to the October numbers:

Freshman enrollment declined by 3.6 percent, reversing fall 2022 gains (+4.6%), and now at just 0.8 percent above fall 2021 enrollment.

[8] For the sake of transparency, the National Student Clearinghouse admits that stabilization is just beginning:

[I]t is essential to acknowledge that our national stabilization is still far below pre-pandemic levels, with approximately 1.2 million fewer undergraduates enrolled this spring compared to the spring of 2020.

[9] Consider the article’s title …

Gen Z is the new threat to the American college experience

… versus a less scary title:

Some students rethinking the American college experience

Why use the scary term “threat”? Why not “Gen Z is rethinking” or “Gen Z is reexamining”? Both are emotionally neutral; both are a truer and more objective representation of what’s reported (even if what’s reported is overblown and incomplete).

Likewise, it’s more scary to indict a whole generation — i.e., “Gen Z” — instead of simply saying “some students” or “some young people.” The former is broad and encompassing; the latter is generic and limited. But is the encompassing “Gen Z” actually true? Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse puts this into question:

Undergraduates grew at both ends of the age spectrum, with students 18–20 [emphasis added] and 30 or older each adding about 3 percent this fall. Those under 18 (dual enrolled high school students), however, continued to outpace all undergrads with an 8.8 percent jump. [emphasis added]

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Travis Burchart

Social media expert, higher education advocate, writer, Founding Fathers fan, lawyer in a past life