Will AI Finally End Our Love Affair With College?

A lot of the conversation around the rise of artificial intelligence has focused on its threat to white-collar jobs and knowledge workers. What is to become of the brokers, traders, graphic designers, software engineers and an endless array of other professionals? Creatives long believed we’d be relatively immune to AI; could a soulless, non-sentient machine really infuse passion and humanity into art? Apparently yes.

As the youngest in our workforce begin to plot their higher education and career choices, the question of which professions and skill sets can withstand the next industrial revolution looms large. Is this the moment when university education loses luster? Will American society put a higher premium than before on skilled labor jobs? Will younger Gen Z and Gen Alpha be encouraged to matriculate to trade and vocational schools, certification programs, or apprenticeships instead of fixating on a bachelor’s degree?

Perhaps Gen Z decided to beat AI, and us, to the punch. There’s been a notable decline in the number of high school graduates aged 16 to 24 enrolling in college — from 69.1% in 2018 to 62% in the fall of 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The remote learning of the pandemic was an obvious trigger, but colleges have been back to in-person classes for two years now. Economic anxiety, student loan burdens, or shifting expectations about being able to earn a living without a degree could be motivating the change.

We saw the inverse the last time the world felt shaky: In the wake of the Great Recession, a record 70.1% of Millennial high school graduates enrolled in college. Instead of flocking to the supposed safety of a college degree, it’s possible factions of Gen Z are now embracing trade schools and apprenticeships. Or trying to be influencers perhaps, but that’s a discussion for another day.

For reasons associated with class and stigma, parents have long encouraged their children to ascend to desk jobs that result in soft hands and potential prestige. Trade schools and apprenticeships are seen as the backup if a four-year degree program doesn’t work out. Yet, there has always been a financial benefit to working in a trade, especially since it can mean entering the workforce with little to no student debt. It’s time to shift our thinking and allow young people to explore different career paths, particularly in trades that will be fairly protected against artificial intelligence, at least for a while.

Electricians, chefs, commercial drivers and telecommunications equipment technicians are among the skilled workers who pay significantly less for their training than bachelor’s degree holders. Depending on the trade, the difference can run into tens of thousands of dollars. Some cities and states are investing in free or subsidized training to close labor gaps. New York City, for example, offers access training for cable installation, medical billing, food services and construction. There’s also the potential to earn while you learn, with government-backed tools like Apprenticeship Finder helping match people with openings. Grants, loans and scholarships are not just for the four-year college path either.