The Decatur Daily Democrat

Jaded with education, more Americans are skipping college


JACKSON, Tenn. – When he looked to the future, Grayson Hart always saw a college degree. He was a good student at a good high school. He wanted to be an actor, or maybe a teacher. Growing up, he believed college was the only route to a good job, stability and a happy life.

The pandemic changed his mind.

A year after high school, Hart is directing a youth theater program in Jackson, Tennessee. He got into every college he applied to but turned them all down. Cost was a big factor, but a year of remote learning also gave him the time and confidence to forge his own path.

“There were a lot of us with the pandemic, we kind of had a do-it-yourself kind of attitude of like, ‘Oh – I can figure this out,’” he said. “Why do I want to put in all the money to get a piece of paper that really isn’t going to help with what I’m doing right now?”

Hart is among hundreds of thousands of young people who came of age during the pandemic but didn’t go to college. Many have turned to hourly jobs or careers that don’t require a degree, while others have been deterred by high tuition and the prospect of student debt.

What first looked like a pandemic blip has turned into a crisis. Nationwide, undergradu­ate college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, with declines even after returning to in-person classes, according to data from the National Student Clearingho­use. The slide in the college-going rate since 2018 is the steepest on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Economists say the impact could be dire.

At worst, it could signal a new generation with little faith in the value of a college degree. At minimum, it appears those who passed on college during the pandemic are opting out for good. Prediction­s that they would enroll after a year or two haven’t borne out.

Fewer college graduates could worsen labor shortages in fields from health care to informatio­n technology. For those who forgo college, it usually means lower lifetime earnings – 75% less compared with those who get bachelor’s degrees, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And when the economy sours, those without degrees are more likely to lose jobs.

“It’s quite a dangerous propositio­n for the strength of our national economy,” said Zack Mabel, a Georgetown researcher.

In dozens of interviews with The Associated Press, educators, researcher­s and students described a generation jaded by education institutio­ns. Largely left on their own amid remote learning, many took part-time jobs. Some felt they weren’t learning anything, and the idea of four more years of school, or even two, held little appeal.

At the same time, the nation’s student debt has soared. The issue has loomed large in the minds of young Americans as President Joe Biden pushes to cancel huge swaths of debt, an effort the Supreme Court appears poised to block.

As a kid, Hart dreamed of going to Penn State to study musical theater. His family encouraged college, and he went to a private Christian high school where it’s an expectatio­n.

But when classes went online, he spent more time pursuing creative outlets. He felt a new sense of independen­ce, and the stress of school faded.

“I was like, ‘OK, what’s this thing that’s not on my back constantly?’” Hart said. “I can do things that I can enjoy. I can also do things that are important to me. And I kind of relaxed more in life and enjoyed life.”

He started working at a smoothie shop and realized he could earn a steady paycheck without a degree. By the time he graduated, he had left college plans behind.

It happened at public as well as private schools. Some counselors and principals were shocked to see graduates flocking to jobs at Amazon warehouses or scratching together income in the gig economy.

The shift has been stark in Jackson, where just four in 10 of the county’s public high school graduates immediatel­y went to college in 2021, down from six in 10 in 2019. That drop is far steeper than the nation overall, which declined from 66% to 62%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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