Post-pandemic, four years of college steadily loses its appeal

Xander Miller, 18, will graduate from Hastings High School in Hastings, Minnesota, this June, and he has big plans for his future.Rather than attend Minnesota State or get a liberal arts degree like his older brother, Miller is enrolled in Dakota County Technical College with a guaranteed job through Waste Management’s apprentice program.”I did have plans to go to a four-year school,” he said. However, “it didn’t seem valuable enough to me to offset the cost.”Miller will instead start as a part-time technician and then transition into a full-time employee complete with tools and tuition reimbursement.Xander Miller, right, with his brother Andrew and mother Lisa.Source: Xander MillerMore than two years into the pandemic, nearly three-quarters, or 73%, of high schoolers think a direct path to a career is essential in postsecondary education, according to a survey of high school students.The likelihood of attending a four-year school sank 20% in the last two years — down to 51%, from 71%, ECMC Group found. High schoolers are putting more emphasis on career training and post-college employment, the report said. ECMC Group, a nonprofit aimed at helping students find success, polled more than 5,300 high school students five times since February 2020.More from Personal Finance:More Americans living paycheck to paycheck as inflation climbsWhere consumers plan to cut spending amid record-high pricesAmericans say inflation has ‘negative impact’ on goalsAlmost half, or 42%, now say their ideal post-high school plans would require three years of college or less, while 31% said it should last two years or less.Even before the pandemic, students were starting to consider more affordable, direct-to-career alternatives to a four-year degree, said Jeremy Wheaton, ECMC Group’s president and CEO.The rising cost of college and ballooning student loan balances have played a large role but “they [students] are more savvy than we give them credit for,” Wheaton said. “They are aware of the jobs that are in high demand.”Still, most said they feel pressure, mainly from their parents and society, to pursue a four-year degree — even though community college or career and technical training may make more sense.During the pandemic, increases in tuition and fees were very low by historic standards, according to a report by the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid.For the 2021-22 academic year, average tuition and fees rose by 1.3% to $3,800 for students at two-year schools; 1.6% for in-state students at four-year public colleges, reaching $10,740; and 2.1% for students at four-year private institutions, to $38,070.Zoom In IconArrows pointing outwardsNow, some colleges are hiking tuition as much as 5%, citing inflation and other pressures.”We have increased undergraduate tuition 4.25% for the coming academic year, our largest increase in 14 years,” Boston University’s President Robert Brown recently said in a letter to the community.”We are caught in an inflationary vise between the institutional pressures and the impact on our students and their families,” he wrote.The more change that you put into the system, the more folks pull back.Jeremy WheatonECMC Group’s president and CEO”Students now have to take into account that it’s going to cost more and the wild card of loan forgiveness,” Wheaton said. “The more change that you put into the system, the more folks pull back.”Nationwide, fewer students went back to college again this year, dragging undergraduate enrollment down another 3.1% from last year, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center based on data from colleges. Enrollment is now down 6.6% compared to two years ago — a loss of more than 1 million students.Another 17% of current students said they will not go back next year, and 19% are unsure about their plans, according to a separate survey by, which polled 1,250 undergraduates in April.Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.

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