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Alternatives look better than college enrollment

Yesterday, I wrote about the updated results of a multi-year study of high school graduates who did not enroll in college, or who enrolled but left before earning a college degree. The purpose of the study is to gain insight into why college enrollment is declining.

Fewer high school students and high school graduates see a college degree as a good or excellent value. Likely, a combination of factors – including the cost of attendance, the time required to earn a degree, the increasing probability of carrying long-term debt, and the possibility of not having a job that offers sufficient salary – weigh on their decisions to forgo college enrollment.

And it’s not that young adults see no value in going to college. In fact, they can name a dozen good reasons to get a college degree. But the perception of value is driven by a shrewd calculus: Is the juice worth the squeeze? For a growing number of them, it isn’t.

So, if a four-year degree is too expensive, a two-year degree doesn’t produce enough income, and the overall risk of going to college grows with each passing year, what do young adults see as a viable path to economic security?

Licensures (75%), professional certifications (72%), and trade schools (63%) were all viewed positively by the young adults in the survey. All of these pathways outscored a four-year degree (57%). More young adults agreed with these statements in 2023 than they did in 2022, so the trend toward seeking alternatives to college is growing.

College enrollment suffers when the product goes stale

Over time, the picture becomes clearer: going to a four-year college currently poses an unacceptable financial risk. Going to a two year school is not an acceptable substitute for a four-year degree. Community colleges certainly don’t pose the same level of financial risk that universities do, so why aren’t these financially risk-averse young adults flocking to community colleges?

Because the return on the investment of their time isn’t sufficient. Community college degree programs don’t provide enough financial return after graduation to allow young adults to live independently. If a two-year degree doesn’t lead to a living-wage salary, then it’s a waste of both time and money.

So, whose job is it to ensure that community college degrees are keeping up with inflation? You would think that a community college administration would pay close attention to the factors that drive their college enrollment and their funding. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of rigorous analysis into the outcomes for graduates. It’s pretty easy to shuffle the course catalog and claim that a newly discovered certificate program or the occasional degree program will allow graduates to break into the middle class. It’s another thing to verify that that outcome actually happens.

This is basic accountability. Judging by the lack of appetite for community college enrollment over the past decade, no one’s performing quality control on the product.

Photo Credit: Heather Kennedy , via Flickr