US College Enrollment Slips Slowly while Job Market Thrives

(Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash)
(Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash)

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US College enrollment is continuing to drop in post-pandemic America, and part of that is due to the country’s hot labor market. Prospective students are forgoing higher education and diving head first into industries such as food and hospitality, construction, and manufacturing — fields that may require special training but not four- or even two-year degrees.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

When Covid disrupted life as we know it in 2020, one of the first prospects many people put on their backburners was higher education. Social distancing restrictions meant teens leaving the nest for the first time would surely miss out on the true “college experience,” ya know, Greek life, and parties, and streaking through the quad. Plus, in regard to the actual academics, multiple studies over the past decade have found that online classes generally have lower student retention rates than in-class learning. According to an analysis from Old Dominion University, “Completion rates in online courses are historically lower, about 8-14%, than in the traditional face-to-face courses.”

While the downward trend of college enrollment is slowing, it’s continuing a decade-long decline. A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimated that spring 2023 enrollment across all sectors — public, private, four-year, and two-year universities — fell 0.5% year-over-year. Last spring the center counted 17.25 million students, and this year it was 17.15 million.

Student bodies may be shrinking, but recent and soon-to-be high school graduates — teens ages 16 to 19 — are joining the workforce in massive droves. Last month, the demographic’s unemployment rate dropped to a 70-year low of 9.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And despite the careers not requiring degrees, many are finding appealing and lucrative salaries:

  • The Wall Street Journal reported that average hourly earnings for low-level leisure and hospitality workers were up nearly 30%, seasonally adjusted, from April 2019 to April 2023, compared with roughly 20% during the same period for all workers.
  • Trade jobs that require additional training like machinist and carpenter are also seeing solid paychecks — $23.32 and $24.71 an hour, respectively — compared to the national median of $22.26 an hour.

Start College or Start Career: In the past few decades, a college degree was seen as a necessity to obtain an often white-collar job with upward mobility, but America might be heading back toward a work environment similar to what the baby boomers experienced in the 1970s and ‘80s. Earlier this year, a WSJ poll found that 56% of Americans think earning a four-year degree isn’t worth the time, money, or effort. In addition, the demand for blue-collar work is high, and employers are offering better pay, benefits, and working conditions to attract employees. “If you can get [a job] without a B.A. and with decent wage growth, why go get a B.A.?” ZipRecruiter Chief Economist Julia Pollak told the WSJ.