College admissions are at an all-time low in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in large part because recent graduates don't think it's worth drowning in debt for.
As the Associated Press reports, economists and academics are veritably freaking out at what at first seemed like a pandemic-era trend that's continued past the return of in-person learning — but the graduates themselves make some good points.
Although he had dreams of attending Penn State, Grayson Hart, a recent high school graduate in Jackson, Tennessee, is now directing a youth theater program — and by his own accounting, he seems to be doing pretty well.
"There were a lot of us with the pandemic, we kind of had a do-it-yourself kind of attitude of like, 'Oh — I can figure this out,'" Hart told the AP. "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?"
Meanwhile, the student debt crisis keeps getting worse as a national labor shortage widens; foregoing college (and student loans) to begin making money right after high school makes more sense than ever.
"Students can’t seem to resist sign-on bonuses and wages that far exceed any that they’ve seen before," Vicki Burch, the head of the county chamber of commerce in Jackson, told the AP.
To be clear, disinterest or skepticism about the value of a college degree is not at all a byproduct of the pandemic. For years now, studies have suggested that more and more people have begun to believe that college in the US costs too much or that degrees don't confer the same security or benefits as they once did.
Still, those raising alarm bells about the lowering interest in college enrollment — which has dropped eight percent between 2018 and 2022, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics — aren't wrong to suggest that fewer college graduates could steepen the labor shortage in industries like healthcare and education, which were already in trouble before COVID further stratified them.
"It’s quite a dangerous proposition for the strength of our national economy," Zack Mabel, a Georgetown researcher specializing in education and economics, told the AP.
With dueling pressures on both sides, would-be college freshmen appear to be set firmly between a rock and a hard place — and no one knows it better than they do.
"I do worry about the future and what that may look like for me," Hart, the recent graduate, said. "But right now I’m trying to remind myself that I am good where I’m at, and we’ll take it one step at a time."
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