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.”