Where Are All the High-School Grads Going?

More Americans are getting their diplomas—but fewer are enrolling in college. Why the mismatch?

A senior fills out a college application as part of a "sit-in" hosted by his high school in Washington in 2013 to encourage students who wouldn't otherwise enroll in college to apply. (Susan Walsh / AP)

The latest national data shows that more students are getting their high-school diplomas than ever before. Just over 82 percent of the students who were high-school seniors during the 2013-14 year graduated, up from 81 percent the year before. The rate has inched up annually over the last few years, largely because of strides made by disadvantaged students—an accomplishment President Obama is likely to highlight in his State of the Union address Tuesday.

But that doesn’t mean more kids are going to college. Quite the opposite. Recently released numbers out of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center suggests that college-enrollment rates have actually decreased—and for the fourth straight year, all despite massive increases in federal aid for students who can’t afford tuition. The number of students enrolling in colleges and universities this year is 1.7 percent lower than it was last year. (The percentage of high-school graduates who immediately enrolled in college fell from 69 percent in 2008 to 66 percent in 2013.)

This isn’t new information, but it is new data for a new year, so it’s worth asking again: Where are all those high-school graduates going if they’re not ending up in higher education? For economists and education experts, the answer is obvious. As the Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign economist Jeffrey Brown have famously argued, students were more likely to enroll and stay in college during the Great Recession; at a time when there are fewer jobs, would-be college students are more likely to invest in opportunities to develop skills and enhance their chances at getting employed. People are drawn back toward the workforce once the economy has started to recover, which is what experts suspect is happening now. So this college-enrollment trend could be considered, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote back in 2013, “actually a sign of good news.”

Something very different and quite noteworthy is happening at the K-12 level, though, where traditionally at-risk students, particularly kids of color, are responsible for the biggest improvements in high-school completion. Conversely, disadvantaged students, in this case those who are poor or coming from families without a history of going to college, are a big reason the college-enrollment numbers are going down, as are people over age 25. Based on U.S. Census Bureau figures, the percentage of students from low-income families attending college immediately after getting their high-school diplomas has declined by 10 percentage points since 2008, to 46 percent. Only those institutions that serve the largest percentages of disadvantaged students—two-year and for-profit colleges—have seen enrollment drop; it’s actually slightly increased or remained steady at four-year institutions.

“We think that others and ourselves need to be asking some pretty hard questions about why this might have happened,” said American Council on Education’s Terry Hartle, who co-wrote a report on the declining enrollment rates, to The Washington Post last November. “This information cries for more analysis.”

In some ways, the high-school graduates who head straight into the labor market are the most practical among diploma recipients. The Atlantic’s Gillian White has pointed out that the types of institutions seeing the most significant declines in enrollment tend to offer degrees that provide only marginal improvements in job prospects compared to high-school diplomas. Today, the popularity of a given degree and its return on investment are often “almost inversely related,” said Anthony Carnevale, who directs Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The high-school graduates who tend to forgo college and make it in the economy, Carnevale added, are also the ones who can land jobs that aren’t traditionally associated with higher-education degrees—blue-collar fields such as manufacturing, mining, and agriculture. Carnevale said there are only a few ways to beat the college wage premium—the income advantage of having a college degree—“and generally the only people who beat this game are boys.” In blue-collar jobs, “you can work your way up, learn on the job. But there’s none of that for females. Basically, there’s no real pathway for girls out of high school [except college].” No wonder women account for a majority of today’s college-degree-holders. “When enrollments go down, the first thing you lose are the boys.”

But going the non-college route is increasingly impractical, even when the objective is a job that’s more vocational in nature. While a job may certainly be an appealing alternative to an increasingly costly postsecondary education, the college wage premium has risen drastically since the early 1980s. The Pew Research Center called this “the rising cost of not going to college” in a report last year, concluding, “On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education. And when today’s young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era.”  These economic benefits even affect those who start college but don’t complete it, according to some research. Moreover, if recent trends are any indication, the people who skip out on school altogether probably won’t ever get a chance to get their degrees.

Carnevale said a key obstacle to getting more high-school graduates enrolled in college is limited information; postsecondary education in the U.S. is “like a big computer with no operating system.” Americans, he said,  have a “chaotic” understanding of the role of college in the economy. “Students are lost; they don’t know how to make these connections” between the value of a college degree and their position within the economy. This is why lobbying groups and businesses have been advocating for greater correspondence between career-and-technical education and the demands of the labor market and development of more alternative credentialing programs.

This also helps explain the huge push among policymakers toward information systems that enhance transparency about the return on investment, particularly within schools, from program to program. “If you’re going to enter the heating ventilation and A.C. certificate program at a community college in Virginia, you can go in and find out if other people who went on to find a job got a job and how much money they made,” Carnevale said, explaining the goal of information systems developing at the state level.

The College Scorecard, which Obama unveiled last September, uses troves of institutional data to improve transparency about the country’s colleges and universities; users can sort results based on various metrics, such as the percent of students who earn above high-school graduates or the average salary after attending. But as Carnevale argued, it’s “more symbolic than real.” It gives users access to federal data on graduation rates and attendance-cost figures at thousands of colleges and universities, but it doesn’t break that data down by area of study. For example, if I were to search for “Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs” at four-year private universities, the results on graduation rates and salary outcomes would only reflect students who attended the school at large—not the communications or journalism graduates specifically. Yet, for the most part, a person’s major is, as a Brookings paper concluded last year, “likely a much more important driver of salaries than the overall institution.” In fact, close to a third of Americans with associate’s degrees—30 percent—earn more than those with bachelor’s degrees, according to research done by the Georgetown workforce center.

The growing mismatch between rates for high-school graduation and college attendance in the U.S. may largely have to do with the challenges with outreach and resources faced by community colleges, which often struggle to provide support to students. “Most people would say higher education is not connected to the economy, which is not true,” Carnevale said. “The higher-ed curriculum is very oriented toward the economy (with some obvious exceptions)—it’s just not connected strongly enough, as a counseling and career-planning system.”

There is “this information problem, this confusion, the Tower of Babel that you face when you’re looking at the economy and higher education,” he continued. “You’re young; you don’t want to take out loans … People are pretty much just wandering around between youth dependency and adult dependence.” And ultimately, even high-school graduation rates are falling short of expectations. This year marked the first time in a while that the country stumbled on its way to reaching a 90-percent graduation rate by 2020.