Press "Enter" to skip to content

Fewer students think a college degree is necessary to succeed

Earlier this week, I wrote about a new approach that Lane Community College in Eugene, OR is taking to connect with high school students. This approach may not succeed, but community colleges may have to begin connecting with students much earlier than they currently do. A recent report by YPulse shows that the number of middle school students who think a college degree is necessary is dropping.

In a survey of 1,500 people aged 13-39 in July 2022, just 38% of middle school students said that a college degree was a key to being successful. Most often they cited “work experience” as the key to success. Following that, they reported having a high school diploma (48%) was important to succeed.

The youngest members of Generation Z seem to be taking their cues from their older counterparts, who are determined not to make the same financial mistakes that Millennials have made when it comes to debt. A growing number of Generation Z members cite the high cost of a college degree as their primary reason for seeking alternate paths to success.

You might think that high school students may have a different view on going to college. They do, but even among high school students, fewer than half of survey respondents (49%) said that a college degree was necessary to succeed. The percentage of high school -age respondents who thought that a high school diploma was important to success increased to 54%.

College degrees have an image problem among the people colleges and universities are counting on to save them. The “enrollment cliff” may be less about the number of college-age students in the pipeline and more about their perception that they don’t really need a college degree to make it in the world.

Rehabilitating the image of a college degree

So how should colleges and universities address the glaring fact that more than two-thirds of teens and young adults agree with the statement, “I don’t need a college degree to be successful?”

Any college administrator who complains about the “enrollment cliff” or uses that as an excuse to explain their declining enrollment is merely admitting that they don’t understand their current and future students, nor do they have a plan to address their needs.

Employers complain that Gen Z workers do not possess what they consider to be basic working skills. While much has been made of teaching Gen Z so-called “soft skills,” what Gen Z lacks are “hard skills” that will enable them to succeed in the workplace. For example, Zoomers rarely use email or make telephone calls, so asking them to write a business-grade email or talk to someone they don’t really know on the phone is like asking them to fly an airplane. Many of them also don’t have firm grasps on basic Office-type software, so Word, Excel, and PowerPoint may all be somewhat mysterious to them.

This is an opportunity for community colleges, which have traditionally excelled at delivering applied education. Offering skills-based learning opportunities are more likely to engage teens and young adults who may not be looking for a college degree right away, but still want to develop the skills they need to succeed.

Photo Credit: Kanesue, via Flickr