Why a growing number of young Americans aren’t interested in college

Story at a glance

  • Enrollment data has revealed there are fewer and fewer high school graduates enrolling in college-degree programs.

  • In 2020, 63 percent of high school graduates immediately enrolled in college but in 2018 that percentage was at nearly 70 percent.

  • The perceived benefit of college is also dropping, with Americans wary of the cost of a degree and the time it takes to earn one.

More and more young Americans are growing disenchanted with the idea of going to college, as the price of a four-year degree continues to rise and takes increasingly longer to complete, it’s made many consider: is college really worth it?  

The Hechinger Report analyzed the post-high school graduation plans of young students across the country and found there’s been a significant and steady drop in the proportion of high school graduates enrolling in college. 

In 2020, 63 percent of high school graduates in the U.S. immediately enrolled in college but that percentage was nearly 70 percent in 2018, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 

College enrollment among high school graduates has fluctuated from as far back as 2010, but 2020 marked the lowest percentage in enrollment over ten years. 

The downward trend appeared to continue into 2022, with National Student Clearinghouse finding that spring 2022 college enrollment had more than 1 million fewer students enrolled compared to spring 2020.  

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At the same time, Clearinghouse also found that applications for federal financial aid were down nearly 9 percent in 2022 compared to last year and more than 15 percent among those eligible for Pell grants — which is free money the federal government awards to students with exceptional financial need that doesn’t need to be repaid. 

The U.S. has gotten glimpses into the minds of students across the country and their views on higher education. The Hechinger Report noted that there’s been widespread skepticism about the value of a college degree, impatience over how long it takes to earn one and the cost of obtaining one.  

Those concerns aren’t unfounded, as the cost of college has more than doubled in the past two decades and is growing steadily by around 7 percent annually.  

Clearinghouse found cost was the number one perceived challenge to getting more education for 57 percent of respondents in a fall 2021 education survey.  

That became starkly visible when Clearinghouse asked adults ages 18 to 65 through one academic year their perceived benefit of additional education. When asked in spring 2020, about 50 percent of respondents felt college would be worth the cost. By fall 2020, that percentage dropped to 35 percent. 

A year later in fall 2021, only 32 percent of respondents felt additional education would be worth the cost. 

Time is also a deterrent, with a separate report from Clearinghouse finding only 51 percent of full-time college students earned 24 or more credit hours in their first year — indicating the average full-time student does not even attempt to take enough credit classes to complete a bachelor’s degree in four years. 

There are pockets of the country that have tried to address some of these issues, with some states offering options for a tuition-free college degree. That includes New Mexico, which passed legislation that provides tuition-free college to up to 35,000 New Mexicans that attend a New Mexican public or Tribal college or university. 

If college is more affordable for young students, it could also make it easier to complete degree programs on time and prevent the student debt crisis from growing — as the U.S. currently has $1.7 trillion in outstanding loan debt. 

Despite the perceived challenges, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates having a college degree can be a worthwhile investment. In 2020, workers with a bachelor’s degree had median weekly earnings of $1,305 compared to only $781 for those with only a high school diploma.  

The unemployment rate for bachelor’s-degree workers was also lower, at 5.5 percent, compared to the 9 percent for those who only had a high school diploma.