WHILE the world is still recovering from the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the attention it directed at remote and e-learning is already making some high school leavers to think twice about college or university education, especially in advanced nations such as the United States, a report by The Associated Press has revealed.
According to the report, with the flexibility remote learning provides and at a lower cost, coupled with the ability to develop skills one can use to earn a livelihood, youngsters are now jaded with education and are seeking other means to earn a living rather than depending on what a university degree can offer.
Associated Press used Grayson Hart, who directs a youth theater programme at the Ned R. McWherter West Tennessee Cultural Arts Center in Jackson, Tenn., as one of thousands of young adults who graduated from high school during the pandemic and are taking career routes other than college.
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. 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 had a do-it-yourself kind of attitude 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?”
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.
“It’s quite a dangerous proposition for the strength of our national economy,” said Zack Mabel, a Georgetown researcher.
Students feel like schools have let them down
Scott Campbell, executive director of Persist Nashville, a nonprofit that offers college coaching said: “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’s overall, which declined from 66% to 62%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Daniel Moody, 19, was recruited to run plumbing for the plant after graduating from a Memphis high school in 2021. Now earning $24 an hour, he’s glad he passed on college.
“If I would have gone to college after school, I would be dead broke,” he said. “The type of money we’re making out here, you’re not going to be making that while you’re trying to go to college.”
America’s college-going rate was generally on the upswing until the pandemic reversed decades of progress. Rates fell even as the nation’s population of high school graduates grew, and despite economic upheaval, which typically drives more people into higher education.
In Tennessee, education officials issued a “call to action” after finding just 53% of public high school graduates were enrolling in college in 2021, far below the national average. It was a shock for a state that in 2014 made community college free, leading to a surge in the college-going rate. Now it’s at its lowest point since at least 2009.
This generation is different. They’re more pragmatic about the way they work, about the way they spend their time and their money.
Most states are still collecting data on recent college rates, but early figures are troubling
In Arkansas, the number of new high school graduates going to college fell from 49% to 42% during the pandemic. Kentucky slid by a similar amount, to 54%. The latest data in Indiana showed a 12-point drop from 2015 to 2020, leading the higher education chief to warn the “future of our state is at risk.”
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.
Back in Jackson, Hart says he’s doing what he loves and contributing to the city’s growing arts community. Still, he wonders what’s next. His job pays enough for stability but not a whole lot more. He sometimes finds himself thinking about Broadway, but he doesn’t have a clear plan for the next 10 years.
Nigerians may be following suit
While it is not yet clear if more Nigerians are shying away from acquiring tertiary education, figures from the number of applicants writing the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, UTME, organised by the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, JAMB, has been on the downward trend since 2020. In 2020, over 2.1 million registered for the exam, while the figure dipped to 1.3 million in 2021. Then, the Registrar of JAMB, Prof. Isaq Oloyede, puts the decline on the introduction of National Identification Number, NIN, which he said eliminated multiple applications.
But the figure has not been commensurate with the number of high school leavers since. In 2022, only 1.8 million candidates applied, while this year, the figure went down to 1.5 million.
However, the increase in tuition fees by some universities, especially those owned by state governments, and subtle introduction of new fees by some federal schools, are making some young Nigerians to think twice about tertiary education.