Non-Degree Options Gaining Traction As High School Grads Question College Value

college value

In recent years, there’s been a slow but steady decline in the number of high school graduates enrolling in four-year colleges, and some researchers have made it their mission to find out why. Since 2019, enrollment for this population has decreased by 8%, according to The National Student Clearinghouse—enough for universities to express concern.

Last month, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released the results of a two-part research series probing the issue, and they provide some insight into why high schoolers may be less interested in the traditional college experience.

Among the key findings of the study is the interest in on-the-job training programs as opposed to a four-year or even two-year degree. Eighty-three percent of high school juniors and seniors surveyed viewed these vocational programs as having good or excellent value. Only 70-72% said the same of two-year and four-year degree programs.

These results come just a year after a disturbing Gallup report revealed that just 36% of Americans maintained a high degree of confidence in higher education—down over 20 percentage points since 2015.

To stay in the game, it’s clear colleges and universities will need to pivot to cater to the needs of a new wave of students. These are individuals who know what’s at stake and want to make informed decisions about their futures. When asked what they needed most from higher education, respondents overwhelmingly pointed to expert-based guidance on what classes to take and how to best pay for them.

The takeaway for colleges? Incorporate more structure in program offerings, including targeted curriculum features such as career-aligned concentrations, built-in internship opportunities, and job placement programs.

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The new generation of scholars are still interested in learning, but not necessarily for learning’s sake. They want to ensure the knowledge they gain will translate to secure jobs and earnings in the future. What remains to be seen is whether today’s colleges and universities can answer this call.