COVID-era grads skip college over debt risks, jobs

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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 gave him time to rethink his future, and the confidence to forge his own path.

“So 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.

Nationwide, college enrollment dropped 6% from 2019 to 2022, with declines even after return 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.

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.

Even more alarming are the figures for Black, Hispanic and low-income students, who saw the largest slides in many states. In Tennessee’s class of 2021, just 35% of Hispanic graduates and 44% of Black graduates enrolled in college, compared with 58% of their white peers.

There’s some hope the worst has passed. The number of freshmen enrolling at U.S. colleges increased slightly from 2021 to 2022. But that figure, along with total college enrollment, remains far below pre-pandemic levels.

In Jackson, Mia Woodard recalls sitting in her bedroom and trying to fill out a few online college applications. No one from her school had talked to her about the process, and as she scrolled through the forms, she was sure of her Social Security number and little else.

She said didn’t receive much support from her high school and other issues affecting her family at the time made it more difficult for her parents to help her.

“I was just kind of this teenager stuck here trying to learn how to apply to colleges and stuff, and clearly I couldn’t do it well enough because I didn’t know how,” she said.

Woodard, who had hoped to be the first in her family to get a college degree, now works at a restaurant and lives with her dad. She’s looking for a second job so she can afford to live on her own. Then maybe she’ll pursue her dream of getting a culinary arts degree.

Some states are seeing growing demand for apprenticeships in the trades, which usually provide certificates and other credentials.

After a dip in 2020, the number of new apprentices in the U.S. has rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels, according to the Department of Labor.

Before the pandemic, Boone Williams was the type of student colleges compete for. He took advanced classes and got A’s. He grew up around agriculture and thought about going to college for animal science.

But when his school outside Nashville sent students home his junior year, he tuned out. Instead of logging on for virtual classes, he worked at local farms, breaking horses or helping with cattle.

“Well, junior year, I didn’t really do too much because once COVID came about that they didn’t grade anymore,” he said. “So I just went to work and I worked 6 to 7 days a week.”

Today he works for a plumbing company and takes night classes at a Nashville union.

The pay is modest now, Williams said, but eventually he expects to earn far more than friends who took quick jobs after high school. He even thinks he’s better off than friends who went to college — he knows too many who dropped out or took on debt for degrees they never used.

“I was seeing so many people go to college and dropping out, not making it, and they were getting degrees that they weren’t even using, you know, outside in the real world,” he said.