As Public Skepticism of College Grows, Students Become Savvier Customers

EdSurge Podcast

As Public Skepticism of College Grows, Students Become Savvier Customers

In part two of our podcast series Doubting College, we talk to students at a public high school about how they’re thinking about their choices after graduation.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Feb 20, 2024

As Public Skepticism of College Grows, Students Become Savvier Customers
Jamal Williams, a senior at Central Park High School in St. Paul, is weighing his choice of what to do after graduation. EdSurge photo by Jeffrey R. Young

This article is part of the guide: Doubting College: A Podcast Series.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — At an information session about applying to college held at Central High School at the start of this school year, students listened as Tory Park, a career and college readiness coordinator, gave advice on how to narrow down a list of where to apply.

The message was that students should balance two main factors: the right “fit” — weighing details like size of the institution, how far it is from home and whether it has the programs the student is interested in — and the right “match,” meaning whether the student has the academic qualifications the college is looking for.

But in this room, there was a third factor at play, at least in the minds of many of the students. Let’s call it the “doubt factor,” the nagging question of whether higher ed is really needed to get the kind of job they hope for after high school.

Lily Krieger, a senior here who said she is interested in fashion and business, put it like this: “I feel like I’ll probably do it just for the business side of it, and then maybe start something from that. I don’t necessarily think I need to go to college. I’ll probably just do it for my parents’ sake.”

Jamal Williams, another student at the session, said he’s open to college if he can afford it, and he’s already getting some college credits through a program at the high school that lets him take classes at a nearby two-year college every afternoon. But he also talks regularly online with young people who have found a way to make a living pursuing his main interests — music and coding — without a college degree.

“I’ve been researching cases of people my age doing [college], and then they get out and they use their degree and they still struggle to make a living for themselves,” he says. “If that’s going to happen anyway, I don’t want to waste four years of time and effort just for that to happen.”

These students have grown up with plenty of messages telling them to go to college, and this public high school is proud of its track record of helping people get into higher education if that’s what they want to do. But these students have also grown up hearing some serious critiques of college: that it’s too expensive, and maybe not worth it, that it is old-fashioned in how it teaches, and that the material covered is behind the times.

And there are more options than ever for students after high school, and more reports that employers, even big-name ones like Google, will hire you even if you don’t have a college degree. And that has made the choice facing these students a little more complicated.

As a result, students and their families have become savvier customers of higher ed. In previous generations, more students headed to a four-year residential college without really knowing what they wanted to major in or do in their career, says Ashley Welke, a school counselor at Central. But she says that has changed.

“They want to have a plan before they go,” she says of most of the students she works with now. “And that’s something we’ve switched a lot more of as counselors and as educators in our program — is to really try to work on that career awareness.”

In the past few years, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, a few options have grown more popular as a result of this new savviness, she says.

One is that more students are looking into gap years. “They want to take that time off and see what they want to do because of the expense of going to school,” she adds. And some students strategically move to a state where they want to attend college, so they can work for a year to gain residency in order to qualify for in-state tuition to a public institution.

And more students are putting two-year colleges on their list of where they apply. About 30 percent of seniors at the school are applying to two-year college “until they figure out if they can financially afford a four-year,” Welke says. In the past, that number was about 15 percent.

These trends appear to be happening nationwide. A Gallup Poll found that confidence in higher ed among American adults has fallen from 57 percent in 2015 to 36 percent last year.

This is the second episode of a podcast series we’re calling Doubting College, where we’re exploring: What happened to the public belief in college? And how is that shaping the choices young people are making about what to do after high school?

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

Our first episode in the series explored the Thiel Fellowship, the program started by billionaire Peter Thiel more than a decade ago that pays $100,000 each to 20 young people a year not to go to college. We looked at how the program played a role in bringing a hyper-skeptical critique of college into the mainstream of American discourse.

None of the students at Central High School had heard of the Thiel Fellowship, though, and Park, the counselor leading the college information session, points out the data continues to show the long-term payoff of college.

“The people who are suggesting that students shouldn’t go to college are typically wealthy and white — so they’re a certain type of people who have access to other things that are going to support them along their journey,” Park says. “Compared to students who have been undeserved, for whom having access to education is really crucial in solidifying their future and what they want their future to look like.”

The conversation is different for students at private high schools, where the assumption is still that they will go on to a four-year college. At least that’s true at Woodside Priory School, a Catholic high school near Silicon Valley. As Nathan Mathabane, associate director of college counseling at the school, says, college prep is core to the school’s mission. But even there, he hears occasional questions about the rising cost of higher ed.

“I have a school that came through to visit where the tuition and cost of attendance is going to be $88,000 per year next year, but the estimated earnings for their graduates are going to be about $70,000 or $80,000 for their entry-level job after they get that degree. And that just feels like a big delta,” he says. “It’s going to take a long time to make that degree worth it depending on how you look at education. That is a point in higher education that we are at right now, and I am curious to see how that part of it plays out.”

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