In 2023, the cost of college is hitting new heights. While college tuition rises yearly, the inflation-induced increase for 2023 has made many schools announce higher tuition rates. Tuition rates for different colleges vary, with some, like the Alabama State University, charging $11,248 while others, like the California Institute of Technology, cost a whopping $60,864.
These costs, however, don’t factor in additional costs like living expenses, books, and other fees. It’s enough to make your wallet cringe. And it’s precisely why many high-school graduates are saying “No, thank you” to the traditional path of college education and are opting for the workforce instead.
A Shift in the Winds
Grayson Hart, a young man from Jackson, Tennessee, embodies this shift. Once upon a time, Hart dreamed of studying musical theater at Penn State. But the reality of remote learning during the pandemic and the looming costs of college changed his mind. He realized he could earn a steady paycheck without a degree, working at a smoothie shop and directing a youth theater program.
Hart’s story is typical. Across the country, young people have been shunning college and taking up hourly jobs or careers that don’t require a degree. College enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, the steepest slide on record.
The Lure of the Job Market
Avoiding college isn’t just about avoiding student debt, though that’s a big part of the equation. The job market is offering opportunities that are too good to pass up. In places like Jackson, Tennessee, young people take up restaurant and retail jobs that pay more than ever. Manufacturing companies are aggressively recruiting and offering wages far exceeding what many have seen.
Consider Daniel Moody, a 19-year-old recruited to run plumbing for a new $5.6 billion Ford plant near Jackson. He’s now earning $24 an hour, a sum Daniel says he wouldn’t have been making if he’d gone to college.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
The pandemic has played a role in this shift, but it’s more than just a blip. It could be a sign of a generation losing faith in the value of a college degree. Spending years in college and accumulating debt doesn’t appeal to a generation that’s seen the harsh realities of economic upheaval and has become more pragmatic about their futures.
Yet, this shift comes with its problems. Fewer college graduates could worsen labor shortages in specific fields, and individuals without degrees are more likely to earn less over their lifetimes and face job loss when the economy sours.
It’s a tricky balancing act; only time will tell how this trend will play out. But one thing’s for sure: the traditional path of high school to college isn’t the only game in town anymore.
Rethinking the Value of College
With student debt soaring and the prospect of job opportunities that don’t require a degree, this generation is re-evaluating the importance of a college education. The dream of attending college, once seen as an automatic ticket to a better life, is no longer a given.
Some educators and researchers describe a generation jaded by the education system. After experiencing remote learning and the challenges it posed, the idea of spending four more years in school seems less appealing. As a result, many high-school graduates are taking on part-time jobs, exploring the gig economy, and finding other ways to build their futures without a college degree.
The Rising Tide of Student Debt
Let’s remember the elephant in the room: student debt. As college costs rise, so does the debt students incur to pay for it. It’s a heavy burden on many young Americans, shaping their educational decisions and futures.
This debt issue hasn’t gone unnoticed. President Joe Biden has been pushing for massive student debt cancellation, although this effort faces opposition. Regardless of the outcome, the reality of student debt is a significant factor in why many high school graduates choose to bypass college and head straight into the workforce.
The Attraction of Immediate Earnings
The pull of immediate earnings is hard to resist for many young people. Across Tennessee, for instance, new manufacturing plants offer high wages and sign-on bonuses that lure young workers. As one example, Daniel Moody, a high school graduate, was recruited to work at a new Ford plant. He now earns $24 an hour, a wage he says wouldn’t be possible if he had chosen to attend college.
A New Path Forward?
The trend away from college and towards the workforce reflects a changing landscape. With rising college costs, the threat of student debt, and enticing job opportunities, more and more high-school graduates are choosing a different path.
A college education has retained all its value. But it does signal a shift in how young people view their futures. College may no longer be the only path to success and redefining the idea.
As we progress, it will be crucial to provide support and resources for all young people, regardless of whether they choose college or the workforce. The path to a fulfilling and successful life isn’t one-size-fits-all, and our society and education system need to recognize and embrace this diversity of choices.