Why Are Fewer College-Age Students Pursuing A Degree?

When asked why they were skipping college, nearly 1 in 3 recent high school graduates not enrolled in higher education say it’s because college is a “waste of money,” according to a new survey by Intelligent.com, an online magazine centered around helping students make informed choices about their college education.

Another 34% say it’s because they can’t afford the rising tuition costs at U.S. colleges and universities.

“For years, there’s been a larger conversation about the amount of debt that students accrue in a typical U.S. institution because tuition expenses are just skyrocketing. The average tuition increases about 8% per year, which doesn’t keep up with inflation or increases in wages,” says Beata Williams, an independent college admissions consultant who has worked in higher education for more than 30 years.

“According to U.S. News and World Report, students come out with approximately $30,000 of debt every year, and it takes an average of 20 years to pay it back. So it’s become a much deeper conversation about when a college degree makes financial sense,” Williams tells Poets&Quants.

This survey adds mounting evidence to a trend many U.S. colleges and universities already suspected: College enrollment is dropping, whether it be from impacts of the pandemic, rising tuition costs, or changes to how students prefer to engage with institutions of higher learning. This summer, the College Board’s most recent Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid report revealed that 698,000 fewer students enrolled in undergraduate colleges and universities between the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020.

The Intelligent.com report is a bit different in that it provides insights from young adults not currently enrolled in college. It offers higher ed institutions a chance to hear from people in the market that they failed to reach and, more importantly, why they failed.


In January, Intelligent.com surveyed 1,250 18-24 year-olds who aren’t currently enrolled in a higher education institution. Among the key findings:

  • 51% of recent high school grads who aren’t enrolled in higher education never attended college while 49% of the group had enrolled but subsequently dropped out.
  • 39% never applied to college while 33% applied but weren’t accepted. 28% applied and were accepted, but decided not to enroll.
  • 48% joined the workforce instead of enrolling in college.

When asked why they weren’t pursuing higher education, 34% of respondents said it was because they cannot afford it. Nearly a third, 29%, said college was “a waste of money.”

“I’m not an economist, but to me these findings show students are questioning whether it’s really worth it to go school, acquire this debt, and then get a job that pays $55,000,” Williams says. “I’m a lifelong educator, and I believe in education. So, I think that conversation that needs to be happening, and it is happening in smaller circles, is that education needs to be more affordable.”

In Poets&Quants For Undergrads’ most recent ranking of the Best Undergraduate Business Schools, we found 14 business schools that now charge more than $300,000 for a four-year degree. Even at ranked public universities and colleges, where students can find better deals at their in-state schools, business school degrees can run between $70,000 to almost $100,000. While it’s true that salaries and signing bonuses from top b-schools are, on average, higher than most other undergraduate degrees – reaching up to $94,894 at the top-ranked Wharton School – securing a spot in such elite institutions is out of reach for most students.


In the survey, Intelligent.com revealed that 29 percent of respondents believed college education is no longer required to get a lucrative job. Nearly 9 in 10 Gen Zers – generally students who are now between the ages of 18 and 25 – are finding alternative education and training vehicles to advance their professional prospects:

  • 26% percent of respondents are turning to YouTube to learn new skills
  • 24% are reading online materials
  • 23% are pursuing internships
  • 23% are enrolled in certificate programs

“Our current landscape calls for a re-evaluation of traditional college education,” independent college admissions consultant Beata Williams says. “In my opinion, tuition expenses at many higher education institutions are often unaligned with the end results of career prospects and salaries. This is especially true for students who receive financial assistance through loans.”


The question for colleges and business schools is how much of the declining enrollment trend is an effect of the pandemic, and how much is a growing dissatisfaction with what they offer compared to what they charge.

In the survey, 31% of respondents reported pandemic-related uncertainty as a reason for not enrolling in college this academic year.

“Now that we know that higher education can be delivered online, I think there will be more options for students who would like a non-traditional method of learning,” Williams said. “I think the pandemic should be a wake-up call for some institutions. I know some faculty who are starting to deliver courses through online platforms at a much lower cost. I wouldn’t say you’re getting the same experience you would be getting in an in-person program, but for students who just want the skills, it’s a great alternative option.”

Last month, Intelligent.com ranked the Best Online Degrees of 2022, noting that 37.2% of college students have now taken at least one online course and another 17.6% take online classes exclusively. You can find their ranking of the best online business degrees here.

“I also think there is a much bigger role for community colleges which are, in my opinion, an underutilized resource for a lot of students,” Williams says. “It’s a great way to start and save some money, continue with your education, and then transfer into an institution that costs more.”

The online survey was conducted between January 21-22, 2022, via Pollfish. View the full report here.


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