Understanding Why a Growing Number of High School Graduates are Choosing Not to Go to College…And What We Can Do About It

Quote from Allan Golston reading "Students are telling us what they need, now it's up to us to deliver."
Allan Golston
Blog Post

In speaking with higher education leaders and others about the decline in postsecondary enrollment across the country—especially at community colleges—and looking at the latest data, I continue to be concerned.

We know that COVID-19 has impacted enrollment, but as its effects on higher education begin to wane, we need to understand the reasons behind the decline and the tradeoffs students are making when deciding whether to attend college. As the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center put it, undergraduate enrollment fell nearly six percent from 2019 to 2021, with freshman enrollment dropping 13 percent over that period.

What’s behind this disturbing trend?

To explore this question, we partnered with HCM Strategists and EDGE Research to ask over 1600 high school graduates in seven states (California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington), who decided not to attend college, why they are opting out.

I encourage you to look at the research findings here, but three key themes stand out to me: 1) students are concerned about college costs, 2) they have questions about the value of postsecondary education, and 3) many are worried about disrupting their livelihoods to attend college.

For those of us working to improve U.S. education and ensure equitable student outcomes, these takeaways are not entirely surprising. But they do demand that we consider the question, “What can we do to help address students’ concerns?” It’s going to take a collaborative effort across our education and workforce systems and it’s something we’re helping to ignite through our K-12, Data, Pathways, and Postsecondary Success strategies.

The study found that 38% of students say getting an education after high school is just too expensive. That’s an understandable concern considering that the cost of attending a four-year college full-time (including tuition, fees, room and board, and adjusted for inflation) has increased 180% since 1980. While the Biden-Harris Administration's recent move to forgive some college debt for low-to-middle income borrowers will benefit many students and graduates, this research was conducted before that announcement, and the reality is that students considering entering or returning to college can't count on debt forgiveness being extended to them in the future.

One of the ways our education systems can address cost concerns is by expanding programs that help students build momentum toward a postsecondary degree or credential at little or no cost before they graduate high school. This is especially important for students who typically face the greatest financial challenges in accessing higher education—Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds.

For example, we recently launched the Accelerate ED initiative, which is supporting 12 cross-sector teams across the country to develop or expand these types of dual enrollment programs that allow students to obtain an associate's degree in an in-demand field with only one additional year of high school and at no cost to the student. While dual enrollment and other pathways programs are impactful, they are not accessible to all students and we’re working to change that through Accelerate ED.

But cost isn’t the only issue for students. Those surveyed flagged postsecondary value (essentially the return on their investment) as a key determinant. In fact, 45% of respondents said that a college degree is not worth the investment because they can’t afford the accompanying debt. Additionally, 62% said that they “would be willing to take on college debt if guaranteed a good job after graduation.”

Students want assurance that when they complete college—whether through a two-year or four-year program, or a vocational or apprenticeship program—they will see both social and economic returns on their investment. We agree and have been encouraging more transparency in higher education on the question of value.

The foundation created the Postsecondary Value Commission managed by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), which published the Postsecondary Value Framework that provides institutional leaders and policymakers with a roadmap for measuring and creating equitable value for all students. This work is gaining momentum.

Earlier this year, IHEP launched the state-led Value Data Collaborative to further the field’s understanding of the return on investment in postsecondary education—both for students and their families—and help state and higher education leaders put value metrics into action. That’s happening through robust, equity-focused analyses that measure postsecondary performance against a series of earnings thresholds.

In addition to cost and value, this latest research shows that students don’t want to disrupt their lives to attend college—especially if they are already working. This concern aligns with the demographics of today’s college students, many of whom are likely to be financially independent, working part- or full-time, and raising children. Institutions must tailor their supports to address students' unique needs to encourage them to attend and complete college.

We’re doing this by helping institutions shift to student-centered policies and practices through our transformation intermediaries. As part of this initiative, six organizations are working intensively with 250 colleges and universities to evolve their business and operating models and adapt their structures and cultures to dramatically increase student success and eliminate disparities in student outcomes by race, ethnicity, and income.

Understanding what’s behind the declines in college enrollment is a critical step toward identifying possible solutions. In reviewing this research, cost, value, and helping students balance their education and their lives speak to the need for more student supports throughout their education-to-career journey; better alignment between our education and workforce systems, and postsecondary transformation with a focus on equitable value.

We know that achieving an education after high school helps create more opportunities for individuals to climb the economic ladder and achieve economic security. To this end, we’re concerned about college enrollment declines and are committed to working collaboratively across the education-to-workforce continuum to help students graduate high school, successfully transition to postsecondary education, and complete a certificate or degree of labor market value.

Students are telling us what they need, now it’s up to us to deliver.