Should we be concerned with the decline in College Enrollment?

Nationwide, there has been a significant and steady drop in college enrollment. Consider these statistics:

  • There were 4 million fewer students in college in 2020 than there were in 2010.
  • The proportion of high school graduates enrolling in college dropped from 70% in 2016 to 63% in 2020. It declined another 4% between Spring 2021 and Spring 2022.
  • Undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, during and after the pandemic with declines continuing even after returning to in-person classes, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

In addition, with the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down affirmative action, there is likely to be further reduction in black and brown students applying to colleges.

In this article, we will be exploring why college enrollment is declining, what impact the decline has on the next generation, and ways to overcome a student’s obstacles to higher education.

Why are students less likely to enroll in college?

There are many reasons for the decline in college enrollment. The biggest reasons cited are:

  • Economy. Our economy is an unusual one. There is widespread immediate availability of jobs, as our nation faces labor shortages. It can be very tempting for high school graduates to start earning money now instead of delaying an income for four years while also accruing debt to pay for the education. Additionally, with rising inflation and the threat of recession, many people’s ability or willingness to pay huge tuition bills has declined.
  • Debt. Student loans have been very prominent in the news. It has become clearer that so many Americans are still paying off student loans years after graduation and drowning in a sea of debt. All of these policy discussions have made more students worried about taking on loans. In fact, only a third of American adults believe a college degree is worth the cost.
  • Value. The majority of Americans believe that colleges have not evolved to make clear connections between academic requirements and the changing labor market. There is a concern that after spending thousands of dollars, a college degree might not prepare a student for valuable employment. Additionally, the growing political divide makes some Americans fear that universities are pushing political agendas on students.
  • Mental Health. Today’s youth are suffering from a mental health crisis. Many young people find the rigors of attending college and/or leaving home overwhelming.
  • Discouragement. Minority students might feel discouraged about their chances of admission by the elimination of affirmative action.

Why is the decline in enrollment a problem?

Economists note that the decline in college graduates will likely alter American society for the worse, even as economic rival nations, such as China, vastly increase their university enrollment. Here are some of the impacts:

  • Effects on individuals. Workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 67% more than people with only high school diplomas. Statistically, people without an education past high school are more likely to live in poverty, are less likely to stay employed, have a shorter life expectancy, are more prone to divorce, vote less often, and are more likely to need government assistance. With fewer people going to college, our society becomes less healthy and stable.
  • Effects on innovation. With a larger portion of the population earning less income, tax revenues will decrease at the same time that there is a higher demand for social services. Additionally, it’s harder to find people qualified to fill high level roles and jobs of the future. Less revenue for investment and fewer employees with college level skills means it will be harder for innovation to occur.
  • Effects on labor. Fewer college graduates means there will not be enough workers to fill high-paying jobs being left by the retiring baby boomers. We are already experiencing labor shortages in fields from health care to information technology, and that will only get worse, which could mean major disruptions in supply of products and services. Many other nations are increasing their population’s college enrollment, which might encourage American firms to relocate to those countries to fill their labor needs.
  • Effects on nation’s economy. The United States is facing a shortage of more than 9 million college-educated workers over the next decade, and we have fallen from second in 2000 to sixteenth now in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees among developed nations. When so many people in our nation are earning less money, consumer spending also declines, which translates to slower economic growth.

What options do high school graduates have?

A college education is not for everyone, but education after high school is certainly helpful and ideal for students who are willing or interested in additional school. However, there are definitely obstacles in the way for many people. It’s important that young people are able to obtain an education in a way that addresses their needs and budget. Here are some ideas for high school graduates to pursue an education in a manageable way:

Technical School. Some teens would enjoy, and perform better at, a technical school instead of a university. Many skills needed by corporations are ones that can be obtained through technical schools, which provides students a significant cost savings alternative to college. As many as two-thirds of U.S. companies across multiple industries report difficulties finding qualified applicants for technical positions, with the biggest gaps in technology, manufacturing, and healthcare sectors.

Apprentice Programs. Employers, educators, and workforce professionals across the country are launching apprenticeship programs that serve youth, ages 16–24. These programs combine technical classroom instruction with paid work experience. Teens can search for apprenticeship programs at

Finding Savings for College. For youth who would like to pursue a college education, but are worried about the cost, there are options that can help. First of all, every student should know how much debt is too much when obtaining an education. Experts agree that as long as the total debt at graduation is less than the annual starting salary, your child should be able to pay back his/her student loans in 10 years or less. Use that rule of thumb when considering options so that your student doesn’t become overwhelmed by their debt burden. Here are manageable ways to obtain a college education:

  • Community college. Attend community college for a couple of years before transferring to your college of choice. The benefits of attending community college are reduced tuition, less rigorous classwork, no room and board, and a more gradual transition due to continued living at home.
  • Online college. In the last few years, especially with the pandemic, improvements in technology brought about the possibility of obtaining an online college education. On the positive, an online college is cheaper, offers a lot of flexibility and options, and allows the possibility of completing the program faster. On the negative, an online college requires a participant to have the right technology and be a motivated and self-directed student. Online colleges don’t provide the campus life experience or allow much face time with professors or peers, but it can be a helpful way for someone to obtain a college degree at a more reasonable price.
  • Commute. Attending a local 4-year university allows students to participate in the traditional college experience while still saving on room and board and benefitting from family support.
  • Scholarships. Encourage your teen to seek scholarships. Avoid the national ones, but look for local options. While local scholarships are often smaller amounts, they are easier to obtain.

Overcoming Mental Health Obstacles to College. Students who are facing mental health challenges but want to attend college should also consider the options of online college, commuting to a local university, or starting at a community college. All of these selections keep students at home, allowing them to have family support and maintain some stability during this big transition. If your student still decides to enroll in a residential college, read our previous blog Addressing Possibility of Mental Health Issues in College to discover ways to help them be successful.

Overcoming Discouragement over Admission Chances. Sometimes, students actually take themselves out of the running for a college because they don’t think they have a chance. It’s important that we remind all students that we cannot always anticipate what a college is looking for in their student body and they shouldn’t reject themselves by not even applying. Due to the recent Supreme Court ruling, black and brown students might be feeling especially discouraged about their chances of admission and will need more adult support during the application process. First, encourage minority students to consider using their personal essay to discuss how they have overcome challenges created by their racial identity. Second, pay attention to actions taken and/or new programs created by universities to engage minority students by monitoring their website and/or social media accounts. Colleges are very concerned about attracting diversity to their schools, so without affirmative action, many colleges will try to reach out to black and brown students in different ways.

Final thoughts…

As your teen enters later high school, be sure to talk to them about the future. They likely don’t know all of their options after graduation, so discuss their goals and use questions to help them think through all the possibilities and consequences of their choices. Remain supportive of whatever decision they make, even if your teen keeps changing their mind. This is one of the most difficult transitions your child will ever make, and they need your positive influence to help them through it.

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