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More high school graduates deciding to skip college; here’s why

There are a million fewer people enrolled in college today than there were two years ago — and the pandemic isn't the only reason why its happening now.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — Nadia Rakun graduated high school in 2021. She could have gone on to college but decided to work instead. Right now, she has not one, but two jobs.

“I kind of just wanted to do that, it's where I'm most comfortable, and making good money doing it, and I can save, so I felt like that was my best option," she said.

Nadia didn't want an online college experience and with the hot job market she's kind of set. Know someone like her? You probably do.

The enrollment numbers at Minnesota colleges and universities are down — way down. But it’s not just a Minnesota thing. The number of high school graduates going on to college across the country is dropping dramatically.

"There are now a million fewer students enrolled than there were two years ago before the pandemic," says Doug Shapiro, executive director of The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Shapiro says it’s the biggest drop in 50 years.

“They have doubts about the value and the potential earnings pay off that might come from a degree, and they are much more wary about the need to go into debt to pay for that degree,” he says.

The cost of college is definitely high on the list of reasons some students are choosing a different path, but it’s not the only reason, and all of it is concerning.

"The nation's economy that depends on well-educated workers to perform the jobs of the future,” Shapiro says.

The future? How about right now? Minnesota is already feeling it.

“There are 205,000 jobs open in Minnesota right now and there are simply not enough people to fill them. We have about one person searching for every 2.7 open jobs in the state,” says Steve Grove, commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Grove says the biggest holes are in IT, health care and manufacturing.

“A lot of people can get a job right now without any sort of formal education or certification. That's not a bad thing, however we do encourage workers to think about what a long-term career track looks like,” he says.

And long-term, it does make a difference.

“The difference between having a college education and not having a college education is about $1.2 million over your lifetime earnings,” says Dr. Joanna Ramirez, executive director of College Possible Minnesota.

"We also see people are more civically engaged; they're more likely to vote, they're more likely to volunteer,” she adds.

College Possible helps low-income and predominately minority students make college a reality. And when the pandemic hit, it's those very students who were impacted the most, either losing the job that helped pay for school or having to quit school to work.

“We are addressing the enrollments, declining enrollments, in some creative ways," said Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra.

Minnesota State says it has seen a decline in enrollment since 2011, but the pandemic accelerated that. Chancellor Malhotra says the system of 30 colleges and seven universities is rethinking everything.

“Rather than focusing just on degree programs, as important as they are, we need to focus also on short-term credentials,” he said.

"We also designed these short-term credentials in a manner, so they are stackable. They can be built one on top of the other. Then at some point, you have sufficient amount of them that they are stacked on top of each other, you may have enough for a degree," said Malhotra.

The hope is that people can keep working while still pursuing their degree, which is the best of both worlds, for our current economy and future.

“Education is the catalyst for upward economic mobility, and it not only for the current generation, education is also a catalyst for the future generations," Malhotra said.

As for Nadia, if she goes to college she knows she'll be more prepared. And even if she doesn't, well, she's prepared for that, too.

“I just invested in a Roth IRA,” she says. “I'm also taking steps right now to secure my finances in the future."

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