The State of College and Careers in 2023: How High School Students are Impacting Enrollment and Employment Trends
Just weeks ago, President Biden signed a resolution to bring the U.S. national emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic to a close.
In many ways, this resolution echoes the state of the nation: On a micro level, much of the way we live our lives has returned to a pre-pandemic “normal.” We can once again work in offices, learn in classrooms, travel freely and socialize mask-free.
On a macro level, however, there have been seismic shifts in the way we view our lives and imagine our futures. Oddly, most of these shifts are unrelated to public health. Societally, most people are perfectly happy going to school and work unmasked, having relegated COVID to the level of any other widespread contagious virus. But contagion risk aside, we’re less happy with the idea of going to school and work in general … or at least in the same unquestioning way we used to.
Widespread, long-lasting social and economic repercussions of the pandemic have caused many people to rethink and resist the status quo. Where skyrocketing tuition rates and stagnant wages were grudgingly accepted as the price of entry to a middle-class existence pre-pandemic, the upheaval of everyday life gave Americans the opportunity to pause and reimagine what constitutes a life worth living.
Many are no longer willing to blindly follow the well-trodden path to four-year education and a corporate career amid the increasingly unsustainable price of survival, unchecked increases in tuition, and increasing instability of long-term employment.
But for every published op-ed claiming that young people don’t want to work anymore, you’ll find a rational, clear-minded rebuttal: Resistance to the status quo isn’t laziness, it isn’t entitlement, and it isn’t unchecked youthful rebellion.
It is an acknowledgement that, as cost of living, inflation, healthcare and tuition continue to rise inversely proportional to living wages, as workplace policies value workers over profits, and as capitalism reigns to the detriment of people and planet, there must be a better way.
And Generation Z, whose members were born between 1997 and 2012, has taken it upon themselves to find and forge that better way.
This movement is more than just a quiet rumbling on young peoples’ social media. It’s a revolution reflected in enrollment and employment statistics, with Gen Z at its helm. No longer are high schoolers content with taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans for uncertain outcomes, and that discontent is clear in college and university enrollment trends.
National Student Clearinghouse research shows that postsecondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, down about 1.23 million undergraduate enrollments compared to fall 2019.
And in 2022, an ECMC report found just 51% of Gen Z teens are interested in pursuing a four-year degree, down from 71 percent in May 2020.
“It’s not that they’re ideologically against four-year degrees,” writes Juliana Stancampiano for Fast Company. “Rather, much of Gen Z understands our flawed system with staggeringly high prices for higher education and is looking for ways to earn an income and advance their careers without burdensome debt.”
Largely, they are deciding a traditional four-year education isn’t all it was touted to be in their younger years. In part because of uncertain outcomes and in part because of the extreme waves of economic volatility they’ve experienced since childhood, Gen Z doesn’t consider a four-year education to be the golden key to a successful life in the way previous generations did.
A report by New America, Varying Degrees 2022, found that younger generations are less likely to trust higher education and that college and university administrators have to work harder to earn their trust.
Among the four generation groups surveyed, the Gen Z cohort (ages 18-25) was the least likely to trust higher education, with 35 percent saying they generally don’t trust it.
According to the report, In early 2020, 69 percent of Americans said that colleges and universities were having a positive effect on the way things were going. In 2021, that number had fallen to 58 percent, and in 2022 it had fallen again, down to 55 percent.
“This clearly signals a red flag for higher education,” said Rahul Choudaha, author of the report.
“The younger you are, the more challenges you find with higher education in terms of price and what you get …,” said Rachel Fishman, interim director of the higher education team at New America. “The lived experiences of millennials and Generation Z with higher ed is different than other generations.”
Generation Z, however, is not against formal learning, continuing education or skilled, fulfilling labor. They represent a cohort of potential students who are at once cynical of the way things are and optimistic about the way things could — and should — be.
They recognize that while official unemployment remains near a 50-year low, the business and technology career paths they grew up idolizing no longer offer the prestige, stability or salary they once did. As so much of their lives have become virtual, they long for careers that are real, meaningful and essential.
So while enrollment at four-year public universities dropped by 0.9 percent in the fall of 2022, it actually increased 2.2 percent at for-profit institutions. And though enrollment in bachelor’s degree-granting programs is down, enrollment in undergraduate certificate-granting programs is up.
Will they find those real, meaningful and essential careers on the other side of a reinvigorated, well-regulated career college industry? Recent trends show they very well could. Stay tuned for our thoughts on how career colleges can help course-correct the burgeoning anti-work movement.
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