College Isn’t the Only Path to Success

Spurred by a robust job market, a growing number of young Americans are choosing to forgo college for the workforce. Politicians of both parties should welcome this trend and build on it — not least, by shifting resources from traditional college pathways and toward work-based alternatives that provide students with real-world skills.

Last year, 62% of recent high school graduates were enrolled in college, the smallest share in two decades and eight points lower than in 2009, when enrollment peaked. Some of that drop can be attributed to pandemic-era school closures, during which many college-age students abandoned their studies and never returned. Rising wages have also made entry-level work more appealing.

Who Needs College? | The share of young Americans enrolled in higher education is at a two-decade low.

Yet there’s evidence that many students are not so much rejecting higher education as seeking a better return on their investment. While overall enrollment in community colleges has plunged nearly 20% since the start of the pandemic, demand has risen for two-year programs that award credentials in technical trades, such as construction, auto repair, and IT services. Registered apprenticeships, which combine some classroom instruction with paid on-the-job training, have grown 64% since 2012.

To the extent that people are gaining practical skills, this trend is encouraging. Some 60% of new jobs created in the next decade will be in fields that don’t typically require a college degree. Many fast-growing non-degree professions pay more than the national median. While it’s true that workers with four-year degrees have higher lifetime earnings, nearly 40% of those who enroll in college don’t actually finish — and in the process amass student-loan debts they’re unlikely to repay.

Expanding work-based college alternatives would go a long way toward filling skills shortages, boosting economic opportunity, and reducing household debt. Yet government policies aren’t doing enough to advance that goal. Traditional schools receive about $400 billion annually in federal and state funding; apprenticeship programs get about 0.1% of that. President Joe Biden has advocated non-college alternatives but has also pushed to cancel federal student-loan debts — a policy that only encourages students to pursue expensive degrees.

Apprenticeships on the Rise | Despite limited government funding, interest in work-based alternatives to traditional college continues to grow.