Financial Poise

High School Grads Are Skipping College. That’s A Good Thing.

It’s the life plan many parents present to their kids as non-negotiable: get good grades, graduate high school, go off to college, rinse, repeat, and get to work. For many years, such a trajectory was assumed to be necessary to get ahead in life. An article from non-profit education advocacy group The Herschinger Report explains:

Even as freshmen nervously arrive on campus for the fall semester, policymakers are grappling with what they say has become an “alarming” decline in the number of high school graduates willing to invest the time and money it takes to go to college.

A little-understood backlash against higher education is driving an unprecedented decline in enrollment that experts now warn is likely to diminish people’s quality of life and the nation’s economic competitiveness, especially in places where the slide is most severe.


There are 4 million fewer students in college now than there were 10 years ago, a falloff many observers blame on Covid-19, a dip in the number of Americans under 18 and a strong labor market that is sucking young people straight into the workforce.

But while the pandemic certainly made things worse, the downturn took hold well before it started.

The narrative surrounding the expected life path of successful young people is changing, and those changes could significantly alter the fabric of the country. To understand these shifts, you have to start at the beginning. Who said college was necessary to launch a successful career anyway?

The Origins of the Collegiate Mandate

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, college was considered an indulgence. By a long time ago, we mean 1944, and by a galaxy far, far away, we mean a country grappling with a post-war future saturated with young men who missed the boat in terms of the traditional career trajectories of the time. It was understood that apprenticeships and trade schools were not going to be available nor prudent for many of these young men, and there was going to be an inevitable period of adjustment as women transferred back to the home (or didn’t). So Congress had an idea: send them to college.

And the GI Bill was born.

Over time, more and more students of all genders began to set their sights on college. What had once been a very specific venture that was reserved for the wealthy and ambitious became far more accessible to the so-called Average Joe. Over more time, such institutions became more accepting of students who were not straight, white, and male, be that a function of principle, greed, or government mandate.

It would be more than 20 years before the government started to pour real money into funding for student financial aid, but the Cold War had them writing big research checks to schools with enough students to keep the engine running. Schools, in turn, invested heavily in facilities and other marketable components (notably, infuriatingly, and continuously not in their teaching staff, though) as public and private institutions.

Still, in 1980, about half of high school graduates seeking further education were enrolling in community colleges instead. This facilitated a shift in public perception whereby the “real” college experience was indelibly tied to a 4-year college. By the early 2000s, as the economy roared forward, more and more employers began requiring a college degree of potential employees. As a report from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service states:

Between 1980 and 2015, occupations requiring a higher level of job preparation (including education, experience, and job training) grew by 68% whereas occupations requiring less preparation increased by only 31%. Predominantly, occupations in Educational Services, Health Care and Social Assistance, and Professional and Business Services nearly double in size between 1990 and 2015.

And then came COVID.

Universities Can Get Sick, Too

In fairness, even before COVID, the U.S. college dream was faltering. As Financial Poise’s Jonathan Friedland previously explained:

The average yearly price of tuition, fees, room and board for an American college student was $30,500 during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to If you look only at private four-year schools, the average was $49,879. Student loans can amount to a huge debt load, not dissimilar to some home mortgages. Pretty ironic given that the one thing most college students don’t learn is basic money management.

College education for most people today is a means to good employment; it is a financial decision through and through. […] But investing in college doesn’t guarantee success. Just ask the barista in the next Starbucks you go into (assuming you leave your home these days). Indeed, a student attending a poorly regarded college may very well earn less over the course of her career than if she had not attended college at all.

And he was right. As the pandemic raged and schools moved increasingly to virtual instruction, the previous strategy of raising tuition while investing substantially in cosmetic and marketable expansions fell flat on its face. More and more, schools across the country closed or consolidated.

College Closures in the U.S. by State Since 2016

Source: Higher Ed Dive

Though largely attributed to COVID, the reality is that many of these schools failed to evolve with the times, raising prices at 5 times the rate of inflation over 50 years while failing to invest in innovative technology or their teaching staff – 1 in 4 of whom have to rely on public assistance to live. And in the meantime, employers are finally catching on to the fact that degrees are not necessary for most jobs, and may not be indicative of skill or talent – partly because the labor market dynamics changed so dramatically during the pandemic and partly because it was just the right conclusion.

The New Regime

COVID most certainly changed employment dynamics in this country, but that change was well underway even before that. The rise of tech behemoths like Google and Facebook created significant demand for people with technical prowess – much of which was not going to be gained in a traditional educational environment, especially when considering the generally slow pace of classroom and curriculum innovation in higher ed. As a result, many of them shifted to what is known as “skills-based” hiring.

Skills-based hiring can feel like a misnomer. After all, as you sift through resumes and conduct interviews, you’re hoping to find someone with the right skills for the job anyway, right? While that might be true, where traditional and skills-based hiring practices diverge is how suitability is determined.

Instead of assuming a college degree or a specific amount of years of experience qualifies a candidate for the job, this approach looks to better explore the depth of knowledge and capability – however that might have been cultivated. It’s a great way to get to the heart of the matter and ultimately gives you a better understanding.

This is especially relevant when considering that the arbitrary educational measuring sticks we’ve come to rely on are rarely verified anyway. More than one in three employers never bother to check whether or not a candidate attained a degree while about the same amount of candidates admit to blatantly lying on their resume. In the meantime, many candidates who would otherwise excel in the position being hired for won’t bother applying – especially women. In other words, not only does skills-based hiring expand your applicant pool but it typically results in better hires overall and improved diversity.

That doesn’t mean education is discounted. It just means that different kinds of education are getting more credit today – and rightfully so. Certifications and even badges can not only demonstrate mastery of a specific topic but initiative when it comes to communicating abilities. It also speaks to wisdom, as it allows candidates to build up their skills while avoiding an often crushing amount of debt.

Does this mean that a college education is worthless? Absolutely not. At the end of the day, you probably want your doctor to have graduated from medical school and your lawyer to have passed the bar. It does, however, speak to Bob Dylan’s timeless words: the times, they are a-changin’.

[Editors’ Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following on-demand webinars (which you can listen to at your leisure and each includes a comprehensive customer PowerPoint about the topic):

The article was written and edited by Lauren Nelson]

©2022. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM. This article is subject to the disclaimers found here.

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