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College enrollment dips in Michigan, but why?

Bridge Michigan recently published an article regarding the college enrollment rate of Michigan high school seniors in the Class of 2022. The percentage of graduates who enrolled in college classes at any post-secondary institution within six months of graduation dropped to 52.8% from a pre-pandemic level of about 63%. (That’s the average enrollment rate for the Classes of 2017-2019.)

The writers point out the availability of jobs and the comparatively high wages available to people who do not have a college diploma. Nationally, unemployment among people ages 16-19 was 10.4% in December 2022. Among people ages 18-19, the unemployment rate was 12.2% in December 2022.

As points of comparison, the unemployment rates among people ages 18-19 in 2017, 2018, and 2019 were 13.1%, 12.1%, and 12.2% respectively. In other words, the national unemployment rate among people immediately following high school graduation in 2022 was virtually identical to the rates in the three years preceding the onset of the pandemic. That suggests that employment in the civilian labor force among young people may not be the primary explanation for the decrease in college enrollment.

The writers suggest that high school graduates who enter the workforce find salaries that are well above minimum wage. That upward wage pressure makes it difficult to justify college enrollment. (Why would you go to college when you can make money without a degree?)

Enrollment numbers focus on the wrong paycheck

It’s worthwhile to point out that the writers’ assumption may be focusing on the wrong paycheck. Two-year graduates typically make only about $2.50-$3.00 more per hour on average than high school graduates, depending upon the nature of the work they do. It’s not about how much money a high school graduate can make. It’s about how much money a community college graduate can make.

There’s a value proposition at work here. Why would a person go to college and earn a two-year degree to make a few dollars more per hour? Comparing the annual earnings of a person who entered the workforce with only a high school diploma in 2020 with the person who enters the workforce after completing a two-year degree in 2022, you won’t find a significant difference. Most jobs that pay a living wage require a bachelor’s degree. In Washtenaw County, the living wage right now is about $20 per hour for a single adult with no children.

The national unemployment rate for 18-19 year olds holds some additional information worth considering. Bureau of Labor statistics data show the following unemployment rates for men and women who recently completed high school.

Year Men Women
December 2017 15.0% 11.2%
December 2018 13.8% 10.4%
December 2019 12.8% 11.5%
December 2020 15.7% 18.2%
December 2021 12.6% 10.1%
December 2022 11.3% 13.2%

Falling college enrollment signals lost economic opportunity for women

The unemployment rate among female recent high school graduates is significantly higher than that of males in 2020 and 2022. One possible explanation is that parents are leaning hard on their recently graduated daughters to provide childcare as parents and families attempt to negotiate a return to work in the absence of available childcare.

34% of the US workforce returned to the office full-time. Another 40% of office-based US workers say they would quit if their employers mandated a full-time return to the office. Women forgoing college to provide care for younger family members is a reasonable theory, given that there are four children who need care for every one open space in a licensed care facility right now in Michigan.

It’s also why the decision to close the WCC Children’s Center was so short-sighted and painful. The decrease in college enrollment among recent female high school graduates will have long-term earnings consequences for these young women, as well as employers who are seeking a gender balance in their workforces.

That is the real impact of the pandemic on women in the workforce, and we will be feeling it for decades.

Photo Credit: Pasco County Schools, via Flickr