College enrollment continues downward slide
Study shows students are open to other options post–high school as costs deter recent graduates
By the time he reached middle school, Drew Galloway knew he did not want to pursue a college education after high school. After graduating from West Henderson High School in Hendersonville, N.C., in 2021, Galloway joined a line crew with a local utility company.
Now, he works as an engineer for Pike Electric where he has received on-the-job training and completed necessary certifications and accreditations through the company. Utility workers, he said, will always be in demand. He believes a career in the industry will provide stability, continued education and flexibility should he decide to move.
“More and more people my age are realizing that line work is never going to go away,” said Galloway. “More than half my family didn’t go to college, and they’re living well and they could raise a family. … That was really the main reason why I didn’t go to college.”
In the wake of the pandemic, as college costs continue to rise and critical industries face labor shortages, a growing number of students are reevaluating whether higher education is worth the investment.
A May report released by the National Clearinghouse Research Center showed that undergraduate enrollment for the Spring 2022 semester fell to 16.2 million, marking a 4.7 percent year-over-year decrease. Between 2019 and 2021, the national undergraduate student body reportedly dropped by nearly 1.4 million students while freshman enrollment shrank by 13 percent during the pandemic.
Community colleges suffered the greatest drop in enrollment and have lost about 827,000 students since early 2020, according to the data. While enrollment had gradually declined in recent years, Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, said the pandemic and labor shortages accelerated the trend.
In many places, colleges are competing with the local job market. “If they can go and work at a Target or a Starbucks and make enough money to support themselves and potentially their families, it’s hard to argue that they need to be in school,” Parham said
In September, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation published a survey of more than 1,600 high school graduates under age 30 who chose not to attend college. Some 45 percent of respondents said they thought the degree was not worth the accompanying student loan debt.
The annual cost to attend a four-year college full-time has risen 180 percent since 1980 when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Meredith Galloway, Drew’s mother, said the pressure students feel to pursue a degree has led some to begin a program without first evaluating what their best career path may be, often resulting in debt that could have been avoided.
“It’s just such a hard age, 18, to know what you want to do for the rest of your life and to make that decision,” she said. In 2022, the average college graduate owed more than $28,000, according to the Federal Reserve.
Many students remain open to earning a degree if they can be convinced it is worth the investment. An Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) survey of more than 5,000 students ages 14-18 showed that more than 60 percent of respondents would be willing to take on debt if they were guaranteed a good job after school.
Reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that earning a degree still leads to greater financial success. In 2021 the median annual income of full-time workers ages 22-27 was $52,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree, and $30,000 for those with only a high school diploma.
Kenneth Bray, a senior business administration major at Texas Lutheran University, said his family instilled in him the value of a college education from an early age not only for the financial and career benefits, but also the personal growth opportunities.
During his time at TLU, Bray said, meeting fellow students from a variety of backgrounds and experiences has broadened his perspectives of the world. In addition to his studies, Bray has also been part of the football team and a member of multiple student groups in which he has further developed leadership, organizational, and interpersonal skills.
“I definitely appreciate college for showing me how to become a person on my own and live on my own. … The sense of being an individual, being resourceful, finding different ways to get things done,” he said.
This summer, Bray secured an internship with Enterprise car rental after meeting a recruiter at an on-campus career fair. In July he became one of the top sellers for the company in the region, and the company offered him a full-time position once he completes his degree.
For many students however, the opportunities provided by a traditional four-year program are still not enough to tip the scales. While many high schools across the country have focused on college readiness as a measure of success among graduates, preparation does not always result in students feeling equipped to pursue a degree or career. In the ECMC study, 63 percent of respondents said they wish high school had provided more information about a variety of postsecondary possibilities.
“Ten years ago, you didn’t hear anybody saying that college was not the only option,” said Renee Martinez, director of career readiness for Comal Independent School District located in Central Texas. “It’s our job as high school folks to make sure that students understand all the options that are available.”
This year, Galloway and Bray will continue moving toward their career and personal goals. Bray, as he completes his final year at TLU before seeking full-time employment with Enterprise, and Galloway in the utility field learning from the previous generation of engineers.
“An educated citizenry is a citizenry that is working and buying homes and paying taxes and contributing to the local economy and the local community,” Parham said. “That’s really what education is. It’s personal, but it’s also really good for the community and ultimately the country.”