Troubling Trend: Fewer High School Grads Are Choosing College

After surging during the recession, college enrollment is down as high school graduates appear to be choosing work over school.

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By Laura Entis

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College enrollment surged during the recession, but as the job market continues to recover, albeit slowly and shakily, fewer new high school graduates are continuing on with their education.

More than a third of the nearly 3 million students who graduated from high school last year were not enrolled in college by the fall, according to a Labor Department report released Tuesday.

At 65.9 percent, college enrollment among new high school graduates is at its lowest percentage in a decade, down from 66.2 percent last year, and significantly down from a peak of approximately 70 percent in 2009.

Why are high school graduates passing on college? The increasingly ridiculous cost of an education is certainly a factor, but probably not the main explanation (while enrollment is down at two-year post-secondary programs, it's actually up at traditional four-year institutions, where tuition tends to be the priciest).

Related: Which Colleges and Majors Yield the Most Lucrative Careers?

It's not because they're lazier, either. Instead, as the job market continues to recover, new graduates are choosing work over additional schooling -- those not enrolled in college in October 2013 were more than twice as likely as those who were enrolled to be working or looking for work, the report finds (74.2 percent compared with 34.1 percent).

But despite its bloated price, there's still a strong case to be made for the value of a post-secondary education.

The March jobs report shows that the unemployment rate among workers age 25 and up who did not attend college was 6.3 percent. That's nearly double the 3.4 percent unemployment rate among workers with at least a four-year bachelor's degree.

And according to a recent Pew study, the unemployment rate for millennials (age 25 to 32) with a bachelor's degree or higher was a third of what it was for those with only a high school diploma (3.8 compared to 12.1). In addition, a college education translated into a significantly more money per year (an average annual income of $45,000 versus $28,000).

Turns out, going to college still pays. It's too bad, then, that many young people feel they can't afford it.

Related: The Best Value in Higher Education

As the cost of attending college continues to skyrocket at a pace that far outstrips inflation – tuition and fees at community colleges alone have risen 24 percent beyond overall inflation over the past five years -- and the job market continues to recover, it's easy to see why for young people straight out of high-school, choosing to pay for additional education over making money seems like an increasingly unrealistic option.

In an annual survey of around 14,000 students and their families, roughly 90 percent said financial aid was going to be "very or extremely necessary," Robert Franek, senior vice president and publisher of The Princeton Review, told CNBC. It's a number, he added, that "has continued to ratchet up since 2009" when that statistic first began appearing in the values book.

For many low-income students, going to college means working through college. Of the high school graduates who went to a four-year institution, only 27.8 percent also participated in the labor force. For graduates in a two-year program, however, that number jumped to 45.2 percent.

What's the solution, then? How can we make going to college a more realistic option for high school seniors? Legislatures in Michigan believe they have an answer, proposing that instead of collecting tuition, a "pay it forward' paradigm would be introduced through which students would have to pledge a fixed percentage of their eventual earnings to a dedicated fund.

Related: Latest Employment Report Shows College Still Counts

Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a reporter for's Venture section.

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