What new research tells us about students' views on college

Female student and teacher looking at a piece of paper

College. Postsecondary. Higher education.

It doesn’t matter what we call it, one thing is true: fewer students in the U.S. are enrolling in a degree program after high school – even though it continues to be the best path to a good-paying job and career advancement opportunities.

Here in Washington state, nearly 90% of high schoolers say they want to pursue a post-high school education, but only 50% enroll in a postsecondary program after graduation. We need to continue listening to students to better understand why.

We know that COVID-19 caused a lot of uncertainty for young people, but declines in postsecondary enrollment were happening before the pandemic. Back in 2022, the Gates Foundation funded research led by HCM Strategists and EDGE Research that looked at why young people across the country weren’t taking the next step after high school and pursuing a college degree or credential.

Three major themes rose to the top:

  1. Concerns about college costs
  2. Students had questions about the value of postsecondary education
  3. Many were worried about disrupting their livelihoods to attend college

HCM Strategists and EDGE Research did another round of research in late 2023 to see if these views had shifted in the last year – conducting focus groups and sending out a survey to nearly 5,000 young people. This time, in addition to surveying those who graduated from high school but hadn’t enrolled in a postsecondary program, the team spoke with high school juniors and seniors.

Here’s what they found and what it means for our work in Washington state.

Students still value college

The good news: most high schoolers (58%) agree that “these days, a good job requires a college degree.” The main reasons young people want to pursue college are all career connected: to have job security, train for a specific career, or set themselves up for a promotion.

At the same time, high school students and graduates who haven’t enrolled in a postsecondary program (referred to as “non-enrollees” in this survey) place more value in on-the-job training and certificates that demonstrate their skills. Around two-thirds agreed that “these days, a good job requires a certification as proof of someone’s skills” (65% and 69%, respectively).

This matches the findings of a Washington Roundtable and Partnership for Learning survey, where young adults in Washington state also shared that they wanted more flexibility to move through credentialing programs and demonstrate their skills.

Fortunately, many postsecondary programs in our state are beginning to offer this kind of flexibility. For example, Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges are growing their stackable certificate programs – giving students more job-related skills in a short period of time. These credits can be applied to associate and bachelor’s degrees as well.

Students want more expert guidance

While the cost of college and living expenses remains a primary concern, students also said they want more expert guidance to ensure they are on the right track academically and financially to reach their post-high school goals.

  • 44% of high school students said an expert to help them navigate the college experience would be “extremely helpful.”
  • A similar percentage said it would be “extremely helpful” to have a mentor or counselor help them understand how to finance their education.
  • Similarly, 43% of high school students said having access to someone who could help them determine what career pathways best match their skills and interests would be “extremely helpful.”

This is why our Washington State team chose to support regional partnerships in their efforts to connect more students to high-quality college and career advising programs. We primarily do that through our Limitless Learning Network and Horizons Regional Grant Program.

Students need more financial aid support

High school students admitted they have little understanding of how financial aid works – including what happens once they qualify for aid. They also want help identifying what they and their families can truly afford.

This is especially true in Washington state, where we rank 47th in the country in FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) completion. This research confirms that we need to help our students understand the big picture of financial aid – and what filling out the FAFSA can lead to. Because in Washington state, it can lead to a lot of financial aid that could make concerns about cost a lot more manageable. Our state ranks first in the nation for need-based financial aid for college and career training.

This latest survey confirms that young people still have big dreams for their future but need support from local schools, colleges, and community organizations to make them a reality. That’s what we’re hoping to support here in Washington state so that every young person has access to the opportunities they need to design the future they want.

Read next

September 2022: Why are young people skipping college?

You might have read a story or two lately about college enrollment dips across the country. That’s certainly true over the last few years in Washington state. Recent reports from the National Student Clearinghouse indicate that postsecondary enrollment, which includes community, trade, and four-year colleges, decreased 16.9% in Washington between Fall 2019 and Fall 2021. Meanwhile, the national decline was 5.1%.