Far Fewer High Schoolers Eye College, Survey Shows

Only 48% are considering a four-year college now, down from 71% in May 2020

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As the pandemic prompts many Americans to rethink their lives and priorities, the number of high-school students who say they’re considering attending a four-year college has dropped dramatically, a new survey shows.

Just 48% of high-school students polled in September by ECMC Group, a nonprofit that provides students with financial tools and services, said they were thinking about attending a four-year school. That’s down from 71% in May 2020, according to the survey, which was released Friday after polling more than 1,000 students ages 14-18 four times since February 2020. 

More than half the students (53%) said they believed they could achieve professional success with education lasting three years or less, the survey said. Among the “quicker pathways to careers” they mentioned: trade skills and on-the-job training.

These results mirror a trend noted recently by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Suggesting that teens may increasingly be opting for different paths after high school, the center’s report showed fall college enrollments dropped 3.2%, down for the second consecutive year. When those two years of data are combined, undergraduate enrollments fell 6.5% compared with fall 2019.

“Over the past 20 months, we have seen a significant shift in teens’ thoughts about education beyond high school with more and more looking for options beyond a four-year degree as a path to a career,” said Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group, in a release.

Some of the hesitancy toward college may involve cost, which topped the teens’ list of college decision-making factors in the ECMC survey. More than 65% of respondents said the cost of college and the amount of student debt they would have to incur were important factors in deciding what to do after high school, and 59% said they worried about how they would pay for college. The average cost of college—defined as any postsecondary educational institution offering an undergraduate degree program—has tripled in 20 years to $35,720 per student per year, according to EducationaData.org, a research firm.

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