Less Than Half of High Schoolers Want to Go to a Four-Year College, Survey Finds

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  • Interest in four-year college sinks to new low as cost becomes the No. 1 concern.
  • Nearly half of high schoolers say their ideal post-high school plans would require three years of college or less, according to a report.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, many high schoolers are rethinking their future plans, and whether that will still include college.

A recent survey of high school students found that the likelihood of attending a four-year school sank more than 20% in the last year and a half — down to 48%, from 71%, according to ECMC Group, a nonprofit aimed at helping students find success. 

High schoolers are putting more emphasis on career training and post-college employment, the report found. ECMC Group polled more than 1,000 high school students four times since January 2020.

Nearly half, or 46%, now say their ideal post-high school plans would require three years of college or less.

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Even before the pandemic, students were starting to consider more affordable, direct-to-career alternatives to a four-year degree, said Jeremy Wheaton, ECMC Group's president and CEO.

Still, most said they feel pressure, mostly from their parents and society, to pursue a four-year degree even though community college or career and technical training may make more sense.

"The good news in here is that there's been an uptick in the awareness of career and technical training as a pathway to a good career," he said. "What is troubling is the decline in education overall."

The cost — as well as the student loan debt — "is the No. 1 concern," Wheaton said.

This year, tuition and fees plus room and board for in-state public colleges rose to $27,330; at four-year private colleges, it averaged $55,800, according to new data from the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid.

Up until 2020, the increase in the cost of college had continually outpaced both inflation and family income.

Roughly 70% of both high school and current college students said that concerns around college affordability had an impact on their plans after high school and for college enrollment this fall, according to a separate survey by Citizens, which polled more than 2,000 current or prospective college students and parents.

Nationwide, more students opted out again this year, dragging undergraduate enrollment down another 3.2% from last year, according to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, based on early data from colleges. 

Combined with last year, the number of undergraduate students in college is now down 6.5% compared to two years ago — the largest two-year enrollment decline in 50 years, the report found.

Legislators had been considering a proposal to make two-year college free as part of the Build Back Better plan in order to boost enrollment. However, it was stripped from the $1.75 trillion framework after lengthy negotiations. Still included are increases in funding for two-year schools and financial aid.

"I'm optimistic we will see a massive influx of resources here but if you pour money into a process that's not working, you are just going to get more students who won't find success," Wheaton said.

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