Posted October 14, 2022 by Mark Perna
On-the-job training, licensure programs and ‘YouTube University’—according to a new study commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, all of these are considered viable options by young people disillusioned about college. Mark’s article, “In A Shifting Education Marketplace, The College Degree No Longer Reigns Supreme,” published at Forbes.com on October 14, 2022.
College enrollment has long been in decline, but numbers have dipped more dramatically over the past several years. It’s easy to blame the pandemic for the college exodus, but is there more to it?
In a recent study commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, HCM Strategists and EDGE Research surveyed 1,675 adults aged 18–30 who either decided not to attend college or dropped out. The research uncovered several strategic insights about why people aren’t going to college, identifying four main segments based on their primary objection to college.
Overall, 38% indicated they didn’t want to take on debt or that college was too expensive, and another 26% believed getting a job and making money was a higher priority for them. But alongside these financial reasons are others just as potent. Some cited the stress of college (27%) and others were uncertain about choosing a major and future career (25%).
Notably, the study did not uncover appreciable differences in attitudes about college based on demographics such as race or sex. Rather, it pointed to “psychographics” such as satisfaction with one’s current life situation, confidence, previous college experience and other factors as having a more significant impact on an individual’s likelihood to start or return to college.
With a shifting educational marketplace comes a fresh challenge for traditional brick-and-mortar universities. YouTube offers a lot more than cat videos these days, and almost half (47%) of the respondents indicated that they have taken or are taking classes on the video platform. Additionally, roughly a quarter have taken or are taking courses to receive a license (25%) or a verified certificate (22%).
In future, approximately four in ten participants intend to pursue a licensure/certification or 2-year associate’s degree. About a quarter (27%) say they plan to attend a trade or vocational school, while another 17% want to complete a bootcamp program.
When participants were asked about what types of additional education and training opportunities after high school are the best value, they did not rank a traditional 4-year college degree particularly highly. The following percentages ranked these options as an excellent or good value:
However, when participants were constrained to choose just one of the options, the 4-year degree (21%) just edged out on-the-job training (20%).
A key takeaway from the study is where respondents felt that their high school had fallen short. Half reported that high school taught them how to get into college, but not the skills they needed to thrive once there. When asked how well college had prepared them for the next step of their life, 30% said extremely or very well, 31% said somewhat well, 22% said not too well and 16% said not well at all.
Respondents had a wish list for what they would have liked to have learned in high school—and much of it all boils down to life skills, such as how to do taxes, how to maintain and establish good credit and how to get and keep a job.
Perhaps most telling, respondents wished they had received customized guidance during high school, based on their individual strengths and interests, on what route they should take after graduation. Instead, some reported feeling pressured in high school to attend college, as if it was the only route to a positive future.
One thing that became clear through the research was that traditional recruiting messages, along the lines of going to college to find yourself or become a more cultured person, simply aren’t resonating with the highly pragmatic Generation Z. These findings are in line with Gen Z’s aversion to debt, which factors largely in their decision making.
These young people may believe that there are alternative (and far less expensive) ways to explore their potential and gain a deeper appreciation of culture. Colleges now have something to prove: that they’re worth the hefty investment on not just a cultural ground, but from the perspective of the bottom line.
Not only that, but colleges need to start speaking the right language. For example, participants in the study did not understand that the term “postsecondary education” refers to education beyond high school.
Finally, when respondents were presented with a list of 15 priorities they wanted to achieve over the next several years, “getting a college degree” placed dead last. Topping the list were priorities like “being in a good place emotionally/positive emotional health” (87%), “feeling financially stable” (85%), “earning more money” (80%) and “being able to spend time with your family” (78%). If colleges can’t make the case that what they offer can help young people attain these pressing goals, enrollment will continue its downward spiral.
One thing is clear: the education marketplace has evolved rapidly—and it’s not done. To effectively serve the next generation of learners, colleges and universities must evolve as well.