Why fewer high school graduates are going straight to college
Nationally, fewer high school students choose to enroll in college immediately after graduation. In some states, not even half of high school graduates go on to graduate school, according to the latest available data.
For many states, this dwindling number is another bleak sign for college enrollment prospects and future workforces — especially since students who don’t enroll right away are less likely to obtain university degrees.
Students “have more options than ever”.
Recent state reports in Indiana, West Virginia, Arizona, Kansas and Tennessee have highlighted significant declines in college enrollment rates, which reflect the percentage of high school graduates public who enroll in university in one year. The decline is even greater across the board for low-income students, for black and Hispanic/Latino students, and for men.
Last week, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education revealed that the college attendance rate for 2020 high school graduates was down six percentage points from 2019 — the biggest one-year drop since at least less than a generation. Just over half of the class enrolled in college immediately after graduation, and less than half of the men did, a first for the state.
These sharp declines were also seen in Tennessee, where a report released in May found that the college attendance rate fell nine percentage points, to 53%, between 2019 and 2021.
While college attendance rates have steadily declined over the past decade, the trend during the pandemic has been “unprecedented,” according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The national college attendance rate for 2020 graduates fell by 4 to 10 percentage points, with very poor secondary schools seeing more severe declines, from 55% to 45% between 2019 and 2020.
The Chronicle spoke to enrollment experts, state higher education officials, and university advisors to understand why this drop is happening and what can be done. They pointed to barriers such as cost, lack of high school support, mental health issues, competing options, and a shifting perspective on the benefits of college — all of which disproportionately affect disadvantaged students.
“Too many people are excluded from the opportunities that come with training and education beyond high school,” said Indiana Higher Education Commissioner Chris Lowery.
Winners and losers
David Strauss, an enrollment expert and academic consultant with the Art & Science Group, said colleges are facing a “triple whammy” when it comes to demand for higher education.
“The first blow is that the number of students graduating from high school is down and has been going down for some time in most parts of the country,” Strauss said. “The double whammy is the college enrollment rates: if the percentages go down, the pool shrinks even more. And the triple whammy is the things that have been turned upside down by the pandemic, or that got people thinking about alternatives because of the pandemic.”
Registration becomes a game of winners and losers, Strauss said. Demand for elite institutions continues to grow, while many public universities and community colleges across the state are losing students.
In Indiana, nearly the same number of high school graduates went to private or out-of-state colleges in 2020 as in 2019, meaning the drop in college attendance was absorbed almost entirely by colleges. public and community services of the State.
In Kansas, community colleges are also the hardest hit. Kansas Board of Regents Chair Cheryl Harrison-Lee said that pointed to a bigger equity issue.
Most students who higher education “has traditionally not served — our first generation, our students of color, our rural students — their entry point is at community college,” Harrison-Lee said. “So we need to facilitate that entry point into community colleges and make it easier for them to transition to the four-year degree.”
College counselors who work closely with high school students report pandemic-related stress is playing a role, said David A. Hawkins, director of education and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
“Sources of stress undoubtedly stem from the traumatic effects of the global pandemic, ranging from social isolation to financial hardship to school burnout and more,” Hawkins wrote in an email. “All of these factors have combined with a tough economy to make the transition to college more difficult and less feasible for many students.”
Bryan Pisetsky, a college counselor at Marana High School in Arizona, noticed that few of his school’s class of 500 choose to enroll in college right away.
The first hurdle is money, he said. But the main factor, he says, is that students “have more options than ever before”. The Pisetsky School District offers strong technical education programs, some in partnership with the local community college, and they have grown in popularity in recent years.
“Our students graduate with certificates in dental hygiene, medical assisting, automotive, cooking – so they go straight into the workforce with a certificate in hand and earn really good money. Most of them can earn more than me,” Pisetsky said. “So that’s more appealing to them than, you know, graduating with thousands of dollars in debt.”
But technical education programs can have long waiting lists. Kelly Pietkiewicz, scholarship coordinator for the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and former college counselor, said some Tennessee students have to wait a full year to get into the automotive program.
And when a place becomes available, returning to university is no longer an option.
“If you graduate and start working and your family relies on that income, but then you get a place in school, it’s very difficult for you,” Pietkiewicz said. “They’re going to stay at one level with just the high school diploma and won’t be able to progress because they can’t take a break from their lives then.”
Against the backdrop of high school students’ choices, there is a broader debate about whether formal education after high school is economically necessary. Research suggests that a university degree makes people better off, but young people aren’t so sure.
In Indiana, Lowery sees that doubt play out. “One of the perceptions people have is that all students leave college with $150,000 in debt and the inability to find a job,” he said.
While it’s not a bad thing that students have more options, experts say, equity gaps could widen if fewer disadvantaged students go to college.
The high school graduating population is becoming more diverse, including more Hispanic and Latino students, Strauss said. But these students also face the greatest barriers to enrolling in college. “College enrollment rates are dropping just because of who’s in the pool now,” Strauss said.
In Indiana, for example, the decline in college attendance for Black students in the Class of 2020 was the largest of any racial and ethnic group, with a decline of seven percentage points. For Hispanic/Latino students, there was a decrease of six percentage points. The university attendance rate for low-income students fell by six percentage points, compared to a drop of four percentage points for high-income students.
Disadvantaged students are further left behind when they don’t have a support system to help them through the college admissions process, Pietkiewicz said. In Tennessee, Pietkiewicz looked at federal data and found that nearly all public high schools in the state had a student-advisor ratio above 250 to one.
College counselors take on more responsibilities, like supporting student mental health, so they have even less time to focus on college admissions. And as parents and students continue to grapple with the complex challenges caused by the pandemic – financial, social, health-related, etc. — college is falling on the back burner for them, too, Pietkiewicz said.
“Children just have competing priorities, and if they don’t have anyone to guide them through this process, why are you going to take on what seems impossible when you don’t have the confidence to do it because that you don’t know the system?” she said.
According to experts, the main way to increase college attendance is to have better financial support.
In Indiana, Lowery said, officials are trying to boost enrollment in the state’s 21st Century Scholars program, which offers free or reduced tuition to low-income students and guides them through the process of university application from college. Eighty-one percent of students involved in the program immediately enroll in college, but only about half of eligible students enroll. Lowery is pushing for an automatic registration system.
In Kansas, Harrison-Lee is pushing for simplified general education requirements that will give students a “clear path” to community college and then to a four-year degree. The state is expanding middle school counseling programs in high schools to help with this transition. Kansas colleges will also drop the use of standardized test scores in admissions decisions, she said.
Colleges hoping to stay competitive in a shrinking market need to develop a distinct experience they can offer students, Strauss said. And they must figure out how to support an increasingly diverse pool of high school graduates.
It probably won’t increase overall college enrollment or make every university successful, Strauss said. “But it gives institutions that do it successfully a greater chance of carving out a bigger slice of a shrinking pie.”