When he looked to the future, Grayson Hart always saw a college degree. He was a good student at a good high school. He wanted to be an actor, or maybe a teacher. Growing up, he believed that college was the only path to a good job, stability, and a happy life.
The pandemic made him change his mind.
One year out of high school, Hart is directing a youth theater program in Jackson, Tennessee. He got into all the colleges he applied to, but he turned them all down. Cost was a big factor, but a year of remote learning gave him the time and confidence to forge his own path.
“There were a lot of us with the pandemic, we had kind of a do-it-yourself attitude like, ‘Oh, I can figure this out,’” he said. “Why do I want to put all the money into getting a role that’s not really going to help me with what I’m doing right now?”
Hart is among the hundreds of thousands of young people who came of age during the pandemic but did not go to college. Many have turned to part-time jobs or careers that don’t require a degree, while others have been deterred by the prospect of student debt.
What first seemed like a pandemic problem has become a crisis. Nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment decreased 8% from 2019 to 2022, with declines even after returning to in-person classes, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.
Economists say the effect could be dire. At worst, it could signal a new generation with little faith in the value of a college degree. At the very least, it seems that those who dropped out of college during the pandemic are opting out for good.
Fewer college graduates could worsen existing labor shortages. And for those who drop out of college, it typically means significantly lower lifetime earnings, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.
In dozens of interviews with the Associated Press, educators, researchers and students described a generation jaded by educational institutions. Largely on their own amid remote learning, many took part-time jobs. Some felt they were not learning anything, and the idea of further education held little appeal.
As a child, Hart dreamed of going to Penn State to study musical theater. But when classes went online, he spent less time on coursework and more on creative outlets. He felt a new sense of independence and the stress of school melted away.
“I was like, ‘OK, what’s this thing that’s not on my back all the time?’” Hart said. “I relaxed more in life and enjoyed life.”
He started working at a smoothie shop, and by the time he graduated, he had put college plans behind him.
The shift has been stark in Jackson, where just four in 10 county public high school graduates went immediately to college in 2021, up from six in 10 in 2019.
Jackson leaders say young people are taking jobs at restaurants and retail stores that pay more than ever. Some are being hired by manufacturing companies that have increased wages to cover the shortage.
America’s college attendance rate was generally on the rise until the pandemic reversed decades of progress. Rates fell despite economic turmoil, which typically drives more people into higher education.
In Tennessee, education officials issued a “call to action” after finding that 53% of 2021 public high school graduates were enrolling in college, well below the national average. Other states are still collecting data on recent college fees, but the early numbers are worrisome.
Most alarming are the numbers for black, Latino, and low-income students, who saw the biggest drops in many states. In Tennessee’s class of 2021, only 35% of Latino graduates and 44% of black graduates enrolled in college, compared to 58% of their white peers.
Amid the chaos of the pandemic, many students have been left behind, said Scott Campbell, executive director of Persist Nashville, a nonprofit organization that offers college training. Many have lost access to counselors and teachers who help navigate college applications.
In Jackson, Mia Woodard recalls having difficulty completing college applications online. No one from her school talked to her about the process, she said.
“None of them mentioned anything to me about college,” said Woodard, who is biracial and transferred to the high school to escape racist harassment.
She says she never heard from the universities. She wonders if she should blame the unstable Wi-Fi on her or if she didn’t provide the correct information.
A Jackson school system spokesman, Greg Hammond, said it provides opportunities for students to get exposure to higher education, including an annual college fair.
Hammond said school counselors provide additional support for at-risk students like Woodard. “However, it is difficult to provide post-secondary planning and assistance to students who do not participate in these services,” she said.
Woodard now works at a restaurant and lives with his dad. Maybe one day he will pursue his dream of earning a culinary arts degree.
“It’s still kind of 50-50,” he said of his chances.
If there’s a silver lining, experts say more young people are pursuing educational programs other than a four-year degree. Some states are seeing a growing demand for apprenticeships in the trades.
Before the pandemic, Boone Williams was the type of college students to compete for. But when his school outside Nashville sent students home his junior year, he spent his days working on local farms.
When a family friend told him about union apprenticeships, he knew it was what he wanted. Today he works for a plumbing company and takes night classes in a union.
Over time, he expects to earn much more than friends who took quick jobs after high school.
“In the long run, I’m going to be much more prepared than any of them,” said the 20-year-old.
Back in Jackson, Hart wonders what’s next. His salary provides enough stability, but not much else. He still thinks about Broadway, but he doesn’t have a clear plan for the next 10 years.
“I worry about the future and what it can be like for me,” he said. “But right now I’m trying to remind myself that I’m good where I am, and we’ll take it one step at a time.”