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College enrollment is risky for Gen Z

College enrollment among Gen Z students doesn’t look like that of preceding generations. The earliest Gen Z adults enrolled in post-secondary schools at a rate of about 57%. Currently, about 65% of college-age Gen Z adults have enrolled in a post-secondary program. In comparison, Millennial adults enrolled at a rate of more than 67% following high school. What’s making Gen Z adults think twice about college?

Gen Z looks at a college education from two perspectives, and they don’t like what they see. For most Gen Z adults, the cost of a university education means taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an economic outcome that’s unclear.

In a 2023 survey, SavingForCollege – college savings advocacy firm – found that of 1,000 parents surveyed, 40% had saved at least $30,000 for college expenses. Twenty-five percent of respondents had saved between $10,000 and $30,000. Thirty percent had saved $10,000 or less, and 5% had not yet begun to save for their children’s college education. The survey is a little skewed because the firm only spoke with parents who had already started saving or intended to start saving for college. Among all parents with minor children, only about 30% have saved anything for their children to attend college.

If only 30% of US parents save anything for college costs for their children, and the SavingForCollege study represents college savers accurately, then among all parents, only about 12% of them have saved more than $30,000 for college expenses. 9% have saved $10,000 or less, and 7.5% of parents have saved $10,000 to $30,000. Of the remaining 71.5%, only 1.5% of them intend to start saving for a college education for their children. In Michigan, parents of minor students have opened fewer than 400,000 529 accounts as of 2023.

College enrollment needs to produce results

For children who are considering college enrollment, significant debt is a near-certainty. And if Gen Z is anything, it’s debt averse. They will not risk taking on debt they can’t repay. And they will not pin their hopes on a favorable job market or student loan forgiveness because they’re smart enough to recognize that hope is not a strategy.

So, that leaves community college enrollment. While community colleges check all the boxes in terms of cost containment, they fail miserably in terms of economic outcomes. Most community college degrees don’t produce a living wage. They produce little more economic mobility than the high school diploma that Gen Z adults in large numbers already have. The college enrollment calculation here comes down to the amount of time spent for the modest increase in salary. Once again, the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.

But a new survey sheds some additional light on what Gen Z does want, and as it turns out, community college could position themselves to attract more Gen Z students to their classrooms using two strategies if they also focus intently on both raising the value of an associate degree and improving their graduation rates.

Tomorrow, I will look at these two strategies and how community colleges could use them to boost Gen Z college enrollment.

Photo Credit: 401(k) 2012 , via Flickr