Four-Year College Has Lost Its Luster Among Teens; Less Than Half Considering a Four-Year Degree or Believe One Is Necessary for Success


New national Question The Quo survey finds the number of high schoolers considering a four-year degree has dropped 23 percentage points since the pandemic began; Students want lower-cost, quicker paths to a career; Majority of high schoolers think about future education path daily

MINNEAPOLIS (Nov. 9, 2021)—After experiencing more than a year in a pandemic environment, today’s high schoolers are more open to education paths other than a four-year college even though they feel pressure to take that path. And while students have returned to classrooms that resembled pre-COVID-19 learning this fall, their thoughts about the future continue to shift, according to the latest Question The Quo Education Pulse survey from ECMC Group.

The study, fielded in September 2021, revealed that the number of teens planning to attend a four-year college continues to decrease, with less than half now considering it, even though 86 percent feel pressure to pursue a four-year degree. In addition, 53 percent believe they can achieve professional success with education attained in three years or less.

At the same time, high school students are keenly focused on the connection between education and a future career, with 69 percent saying it is important to have on-the-job experiences like apprenticeships and internships during their postsecondary education.

In addition, more than three-quarters said they think about their education and career beyond high school at least weekly, with more than half thinking about it daily. And while the cost of college continues to be a driving factor for where they choose to go to school, connection to a job also ranks high.

“Over the past 20 months, we have seen a significant shift in teens’ thoughts about education beyond high school with more and more looking for options beyond a four-year degree as a path to a career,” said Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group. “Now, we as educators must ensure they have the information and support necessary to select and complete the right education path for them—regardless of the path they choose.”

The statistics are from the latest iteration of ECMC Group’s Question The Quo Education Pulse surveys, which have examined high schoolers’ attitudes about their future education and work throughout the pandemic. The surveys of high school students ages 14-18, conducted in partnership with VICE Media, took place in February 2020, May 2020, January 2021 and September 2021 and sought to uncover how teens are thinking about and planning for their future education and careers amidst an ever-changing pandemic environment.

The survey data also points to differing thoughts between demographics, including men and women as well as those from different income levels. For instance:

  • Female students are more likely to think about their education and career every day compared to their male counterparts.
  • Female students and students from high-income households are more likely to believe that education beyond high school is necessary compared to male students and students from low-income households.
  • Despite students from high-income households believing they need more education to feel successful, their belief that education is necessary has dropped the most (a 25 percentage-point drop since February 2020 compared to a 12 percentage-point drop for students from low-income households).
  • Female students feel more pressure to attend a four-year college than their male peers.
  • While the amount of money they can make immediately upon graduation is equally important across demographics, the amount of money they can make over the long term is a more important factor for students from middle- and high-income households than for those from low-income households.
  • Students from low-income households are more likely to believe that they will be learning throughout their lifetime compared to students from high-income households.

Additional findings include:

Gen Z feels pressure to pursue a four-year college, despite being open to other paths

  • 48 percent of students are considering attending a four-year college, 23 percentage points less than in May 2020 (dropped from 71 percent to 48 percent)
  • 86 percent said they feel pressure to pursue a four-year degree
  • 59 percent said they feel pressure from parents/guardians/family
  • 44 percent said they feel pressure from society
  • 46 percent said their post-high school education should last less than four years, and 45 percent said it should last two years or less

Gen Z wants skill-focused, quicker pathways to careers

  • 65 percent said skills should be learned hands-on in a lab setting, and 53 percent said they would prefer to learn skills through an on-the-job experience
  • 58 percent believe a skill-based education (e.g., trade skills, nursing, STEM, etc.) makes sense in today’s world
  • 47 percent believe a program they can complete in a shorter period of time (less than two years) makes sense

Career paths are top-of-mind for Gen Z

  • 83 percent think about their education and career path at least once a week
    • 53 percent think about their education and career path every day
  • 73 percent said an important factor of their post-high school path was whether there is a direct path to a career
  • 62 percent have a career path in mind right now

Money still plays a role in Gen Z’s decision making

  • More than 65 percent said the cost of tuition and the amount of student loans they would need were important factors in what they choose to do after high school
  • 59 percent worry about how they will pay for college
  • 43 percent said the cost of college is the most important element in their education decision, outranking job placements, completion rates and college rankings

Gen Z teens believe government and employers should help fund postsecondary education

  • 47 percent believe the government should provide additional money to pay off student loans
  • 35 percent believe the government should subsidize/pay off debt
  • 39 percent believe the government should subsidize/pay for college
  • 38 percent believe companies should provide formal education
  • 34 percent believe companies should provide money to pay off student loans

Lifelong learning is a part of Gen Z’s plans

  • 53 percent said they expect to be learning throughout their lifetime
  • 45 percent want more formalized education throughout their lifetime
  • Nearly one-third said they would prefer their education be several short (one year or less) experiences over their lifetime rather than one longer experience (four years)

Awareness and openness to career and technical education has increased

  • 56 percent of students are aware of what career and technical education is (15 percentage-point increase since February 2020)
  • 57 percent would be open to pursuing career and technical education if it became tuition-free across the country
  • 36 percent said they’d be more likely to pursue career and technical education if there was a stronger guarantee of a job after graduation, and 33 percent said they would if there was a guarantee that they would develop stronger career skills
  • 31 percent said they would be more likely to pursue career and technical education if it was viewed as valuable as a four-year degree

“These insights indicate teens are extremely tuned in to their future career path but need to know more about the education it takes to get there,” said Wheaton. “Their focus has shifted on their future, weighing what matters most and cutting out the unnecessary. We have an opportunity to illuminate the pathways from high school to postsecondary education, on-the-job learning and careers, and the value education still holds for the future generations of workers.”

The surveys are part of ECMC Group’s Question The Quo campaign, which aims to empower students to learn about the various higher education options available and to take the career path that’s right for them.

Survey Methodology
ECMC Group, in partnership with VICE Media, conducted four national Question The Quo Education Pulse surveys. The first survey of 1,177 high school students was conducted Feb. 25-March 2, 2020; the second survey of 1,025 high school students was conducted May 14-20, 2020; the third survey of 1,001 high school students was conducted Jan. 4-19, 2021; the fourth survey of 1,052 high school students was conducted Sept. 20-Oct. 3, 2021.

About ECMC Group

ECMC Group is a nonprofit corporation focused on helping students succeed by creating, providing and investing in innovative educational opportunities. Headquartered in Minneapolis, ECMC Group and its family of companies are focused on advancing educational opportunities through financial tools and services; nonprofit career education and workforce training; and innovative, impactful and mission-aligned funding for innovative programs to help students achieve their academic and professional goals and to address the future of work. To learn more, visit  www.ecmcgroup.org.

eCampus News Staff