Personal finance

College enrollment continues to slide as more students question the value of a four-year degree

Three years after the Covid pandemic, there are more than 1 million fewer students enrolled in college.

“Overall, undergraduate enrollment is still well below pre-pandemic levels, especially among degree-seeking students,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Only community colleges notched enrollment gains in the current semester, while enrollments in bachelor’s degree programs fell, according to the Research Center’s new report.

As students look for a more direct link to the workforce, there’s a shift “toward shorter term programs,” Shapiro said.

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Concerns over rising costs and large student loan balances are causing more young adults to reconsider their plans after high school, a separate report by Junior Achievement and Citizens also found. 

More than 75% of high schoolers now say that a two-year or technical certification is enough, and only 41% believe they must have a four-year degree to get a good job.

“Teens are really starting to question the value of the four-year degree,” said Ed Grocholski, chief marketing officer at Junior Achievement.

For his part, Chris Ebeling, head of student lending at Citizens, said “it’s not surprising, given that the price of college has dramatically outpaced household income over the past two decades, which puts further pressure on families.”

Teens are really starting to question the value of the four-year degree.
Ed Grocholski
chief marketing officer at Junior Achievement

At the same time, between online credits and certifications, there are more options available at a lower cost, according to Grocholski. “There are a lot of opportunities out there that didn’t exist before,” he said.

Federal data also shows that trade school students are more likely to be employed after school than their degree-seeking counterparts — and much more likely to work in a job related to their field of study.

Getting a degree still pays

For decades, research found that earning a degree is almost always worthwhile.

Bachelor’s degree holders generally earn 75% more than those with just a high school diploma, according to “The College Payoff,” a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce — and the higher the level of educational attainment, the larger the payoff.

Finishing college puts workers on track to earn a median of $2.8 million over their lifetimes, compared with $1.6 million if they only had a high school diploma, the report found. 

Over time, occupations as a whole are steadily requiring more education, according to another recent report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And the fastest-growing industries, such as computer and data processing, still require workers with disproportionately high education levels compared with industries that have not grown as quickly.

In 1983, only 28% of jobs required any postsecondary education and training beyond high school. By 2021, that had jumped to 68%, the report also found. In another decade, it will climb to 72%.

What’s more, a growing number of companies, including many in tech, recently decided to drop degree requirements for middle-skill and even higher-skill roles.

“A four-year a degree has value, but not everybody needs to go to college,” Grocholski said. “There are a lot of things you could do to gain skills and get out there in the world.”

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