Work, Gap Year, or Job Training? Why Some Young People Are Deciding Against College

  • March 7, 2023

  • Eyes4Research

The disruption at colleges and universities during the height of the pandemic had a lasting and dramatic effect on college students. In addition to students being required to make the shift to remote learning while their campuses were closed, a recent study conducted by Montclair State University found that students at the university were profoundly affected by stress related to academic and financial issues, as well as COVID itself during lockdown in the spring of 2020. For many, these pressures led to them making the decision to take a break from their studies or drop out of college altogether. 

Some high school students, who dealt with their own stressors while adjusting to a different type of school day during the pandemic, are opting to delay college or choose a different path that doesn’t include earning a college degree, at all. So what is it that is causing students to forgo college, and what are they choosing to do instead? 

The Rising Cost of College

Even before the pandemic upended the lives of college students, the price of education was skyrocketing. According to the most recent College Board’s Trends in College Pricing report, private colleges increased tuition by about $7,000 on average every ten years from 1991 until the pandemic. Over the last 30 years, average private college tuition prices have nearly doubled from $19,360 in 1992 to $38,070. 

The same report reveals that public universities saw a shocking tuition price increase of 158.2% from 1991 to 2021. Many universities have announced plans to increase tuition even further, citing inflationary pressures as a primary reason. Highly selective schools, such as Ivy League institutions are the least likely to be affected by a drop in enrollment because of their increased tuition price tags. Needless to say, the sticker shock of earning a college degree is causing many families to think twice about sending their students to college.

Choosing Work Over Books

While some experts still see an economic slowdown on the horizon, the job market is still strong enough that some students are choosing to earn rather than learn, at least for the time being. Some college students are taking fewer credit hours so they can work more, and others are deciding to leave their coursework behind so they can devote their time to their jobs. In fact, a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that the number of undergraduates currently enrolled is down 6.6% from two years ago– evidence that more young people are choosing to work. 31% of the students polled for the same report specifically cited the strong job market as one of the reasons that they do not plan on finishing school and want to look for a job instead. 

One of the disadvantages of this decision is the fact that studies have shown that college graduates will earn nearly $1 million over the course of their careers. For students who decide to drop out of college or forgo college altogether to work, the loss of potential earnings and to some degree, career advancement limitations, could be significant. 

Career and Technical Education Take Shape

Once known as vocational training, CTE programs are preparing high school students for high-paying jobs around the country. What used to look like home economics or  ‘auto shop’ class, has evolved into a more specialized and sophisticated tool for education reform. Nearly 8.3 million students participated in a CTE program in 2020-2021, up from 7.5 million the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

CTE courses range from culinary arts to landscape design and prepare students for high-earning jobs straight out of high school, as well as having the added benefit of boosting graduation rates. In many school districts, these programs partner with local industries to align their course offerings with current labor market needs. Some of these programs even offer a free Associate’s degree, giving students an opportunity to complete the final two years and earn a Bachelor’s degree, if they choose to do so at a later date. 

As disruptive as COVID was for students, it helped bring to light the fact that there are other options for young people who might not be quite ready for college or simply rather take some time to work and decide what they want their future to look like. 

Read more about education and college students on the Eyes4Research blog. Eyes4Research also has everything you need to collect high-quality insights from college students. Our panels are comprised of B2B, B2C, and specialty audiences ready to participate in your next research project. Learn more about our college student panel, as well as our other specialty panels, here.