Share this:

September 2022: Why are young people skipping college?


September 30th, 2022

Director's Note

You might have read a story or two lately about college enrollment dips across the country. That’s certainly true over the last few years in Washington state. Recent reports from the National Student Clearinghouse indicate that postsecondary enrollment, which includes community, trade, and four-year colleges, decreased 16.9% in Washington between Fall 2019 and Fall 2021. Meanwhile, the national decline was 5.1%.

While we have guesses, we always prefer to hear from students themselves to better understand their barriers. That’s why the foundation funded research to learn from high school graduates in seven states, including Washington, who decided not to go to college or dropped out of a two- or four-year program. Three themes rose to the top: 1) concerns about costs, 2) questions about the value of a postsecondary education, and 3) worries about disrupting their lives to attend college.

I might not understand their TikTok trends, but I definitely understand where students are coming from because I almost quit college as I worried about the financial burden on my family. Today’s students have the same hopes and aspirations that I did at their age. They want guarantees that their investment – and it’s a big investment – will help build a meaningful life for themselves.

As a foundation, we are committed to increasing information available to students and families about the value of degrees and credentials, and our Postsecondary Success team supports the work of colleges and universities as they change policies and practices to better meet students where they are and provide the flexibility they need to feel confident that they can get to the finish line of a program and emerge prepared for an in-demand job.

There is clearly a need to make a stronger case to students as to why continuing their education beyond high school better positions them to reach their own aspirations. We heard similar themes in the more than 200 conversations we had recently to inform a new education strategy here in Washington state. I can’t wait to share more details about this new focus in the next couple of months. For now, I hope you’ll explore these student perspectives in more detail below.

Angela Jones

Director, Washington State Initiative

Partner Spotlight: Student Perspectives on Higher Education

Nearly 90 percent of high school students in Washington state say they want to pursue a postsecondary program after high school. So why has college enrollment decreased in the last few years? While it's easy to blame it on the pandemic, these declines have been going on for longer than that.

The foundation partnered with HCM Strategists and Edge Research to better understand why young people weren’t taking the next step after high school. These partners surveyed more than 1,600 high school graduates in seven states (California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington) who decided not to attend college.

Here are a few highlights from this research:

  • Cost is a big factor. 38% of students say getting an education after high school is too expensive.
  • While affordability matters, the return on investment is an even bigger concern. In fact, 62% said that they “would be willing to take on college debt if guaranteed a good job after graduation.”
  • Other reasons young people aren’t going to college including feeling too much stress/pressure (27%), believing it is more important to get a job and make money (26%), and uncertainty about their major/future career (25%).

These are just a few of the survey’s findings. Take some time to read this blog from U.S. Program President Allan Golston, who details how the foundation and our partners are working to address these student concerns across the country.

Explore key findings from the report

Community Engagement Spotlight: Supporting Libraries

From wildfires to floods to a pandemic, local communities have faced significant disruptions in the last decade. Amidst all of this, our libraries have been a true constant resource for communities, evolving over time as patron needs have grown. Libraries now offer a wide range of services, including support for job searches and remote learning, help accessing community services, a safe place for children to study and receive homework help, language resources, voter assistance, and so much more.

Our Community Engagement team, which provides grants to local organizations that address issues affecting the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors, recently provided $600,000 in grants to six library systems across Western Washington. These systems have 130 branches that serve 3.7 million people, creating a web of support that is vital to every community member.

What We're Reading



Back to all updates