JACKSON (TN) -- Grayson Hart saw a college degree when he looked into the future. Grayson Hart was a great student at a high school. He wanted to become an actor or a teacher. He believed that college was the only way to get a job, stability, and a happy future.
The pandemic changed his mind.
Hart directs a youth theatre program in Jackson, Tenn. Hart graduated high school one year ago. Hart was accepted to every college but was turned down by all. Although cost was an important factor, a year of remote education gave him the confidence and time to create his own path.
He said that there were many of us affected by the pandemic. We had a kind of do-it yourself attitude. "Why would I spend all that money on paper that isn't going help me with my current job?"
Hart is one of hundreds of thousands of young people who were born during the pandemic, but did not go to college. Many people have found work in hourly or non-degree-related jobs, while others are discouraged by the high tuition and prospect of student loan.
This was initially a pandemic blip, but it has now become a crisis. According to the National Student Clearinghouse data, undergraduate college enrollment fell 8% between 2019 and 2022. These declines continued even after returning to classes in person. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2018 decline in college-going rates is the largest ever recorded.
According to economists, the consequences could be catastrophic.
It could indicate a new generation that has little faith in college degrees. It appears that those who dropped out of college due to the pandemic may be leaving for good. They have not enrolled in the predicted year.
There could be a worsening of the labor shortage in information technology and health care fields due to fewer college graduates. According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, those who choose not to go to college usually earn 75% less in their lifetimes than those who have a bachelor's degree. Those without degrees are more vulnerable to losing their jobs when the economy is in decline.
Zack Mabel, a Georgetown researcher, said that it was a very dangerous proposition for our nation's strength.
Interviews with the Associated Press were conducted by educators, researchers, and students who described a generation that is disillusioned with education institutions. Many students took part-time work and left the classroom to learn remotely. Many felt that they were not learning enough and didn't want to go back to school for four years or two more.
The nation's student loan debt has also risen. Young Americans have been weighing in on the issue as President Joe Biden pushes for huge amounts of debt cancellation, something the Supreme Court seems poised to block.
Hart dreamed as a child of studying musical theater at Penn State. Hart's family supported college and he attended a private Christian highschool where it was an expectation.
He found more creative outlets when he started taking online classes. He felt more independent and the stress of school disappeared.
"I was like, "OK, what's that thing that's on my back not constantly?" Hart replied. "I can do anything that I enjoy." I can do the things that are most important to me. I enjoyed my life more and felt less stressed.
After starting work at a smoothie shop, he realized that he could make a steady income without a college degree. He had already dropped out of college by the time he graduated high school.
Both public and private schools were affected. Principals and counselors were shocked to learn that graduates were flocking to work at Amazon warehouses, or earning a living in the gig economy.
Jackson is witness to this dramatic shift. Only four out of 10 county's high school graduates went on to college within the next 10 years, compared with six in 10. This drop is much more than that of the country overall, which fell from 66% down to 62% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jackson's leaders claim that young people are choosing to work in retail and restaurant jobs that pay higher wages than ever before. Manufacturing companies have increased wages aggressively to fill the shortages.
Vicki Bunch is the director of workforce development at the chamber of commerce in the area. She stated that students can't resist sign-on bonuses or wages that are far more than they've ever seen.
There is growing concern that the slide in Tennessee will accelerate with the opening of new manufacturing plants. Near Jackson, a Ford plant worth $5.6 billion will make electric trucks and batteries. It is expected to create 5,000 new jobs and attract young workers.
After graduating from a Memphis highschool in 2021, Daniel Moody (19) was hired to manage the plumbing at the plant. He's happy he went to college, now earning $24 per hour.
He said, "If I had gone to college after school I would have been broke." "The kind of money that we make here, you won't be making it while you try to go to college."
Until the pandemic, America's college-going rate had been on the rise. This was despite decades of progress. The rates fell despite the increase in high school graduates across the country, and despite economic turmoil, which usually drives more people to higher education.
Tennessee education officials issued an urgent call to action after discovering that only 53% of graduates from public high schools were going on to college. This is far below the national average. This was shocking for Tennessee, which in 2014 had made community college completely free. This led to an increase in college-going rates. It's now at its lowest level since at least 2009.
Jamia Stokes is a senior director at SCORE (an education non-profit). Jamia said that this generation is different. They are more practical about how they work and what they do with their time.
Although most states still have data about recent college rates, early numbers are alarming.
During the pandemic, Arkansas saw a drop in the number of high school graduates who went to college from 49% to 42%. Kentucky saw a similar drop to 54%. In Indiana, the latest data showed a 12-point decline in enrollment between 2015 and 2020. This led the chief of higher education to warn that the future of the state was at risk.
The alarming statistics for students of color, Hispanic, and low-income are even more concerning. These groups saw the most drastic drops in many states. Only 35% of Hispanic graduates in Tennessee and 44% of Black graduates were enrolled in college. This compares to 58% of their white counterparts.
There is some hope that the worst may be over. From 2021 to 2022, the number of freshmen enrolled in U.S. colleges grew slightly. However, this figure and total college enrollment remain far below levels pre-pandemic.
Scott Campbell, executive director at Persist Nashville, which offers college coaching, stated that many students were caught up in the chaos caused by the pandemic.
Some students were not prepared for college because they fell behind in school. Others were unable to access counselors or teachers who can help them navigate college applications and the complex process of applying federal student aid.
Campbell stated that students feel let down by schools.
Mia Woodard, Jackson, recalled sitting in her bedroom trying to fill out online college applications. She said that no one from her school had ever spoken to her about the process. She was certain of her Social Security number as she scanned through the forms.
Woodard, a biracial man who moved high schools to escape racism bullying, said that 'none of them even mentioned anything college wise to me.' "It could be that they didn't believe it was me."
She claims she has never received a response from colleges. She is unsure if her poor Wi-Fi is to blame or if she just didn't provide the correct information.
Greg Hammond, a spokesperson for Jackson schools, stated that the system offers many opportunities for students to get exposure to higher education. This includes an annual college fair for seniors.
Hammond stated that Mia was an at-risk student. "Our school counselors offer additional support for high school students in that category. However, it is difficult to offer post-secondary planning assistance and assistance to students who do not participate in these services.
Woodard, who had hoped that she would be the first person in her family to earn a college degree, now lives with her father and works at a restaurant. Woodard is looking for a second job to allow her to afford to live independently. She might then pursue her culinary arts degree.
She said that her chances were still 50-50.
Experts say there is a bright spot: More young people are choosing education programs that don't require a four year degree. Apprenticeships in trades are becoming more popular in some states. These usually come with certificates.
According to the Department of Labor, there has been a slight dip in 2020 but the number of U.S. apprentices has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
Boone Williams was a student college competitor before the pandemic. He took advanced classes, and received A's. He was a farmer growing up and he thought of going to college to study animal science.
He opted to leave his high school in Nashville when he saw that his students had been sent home for the junior year. Instead of signing up for online classes, he worked on local farms, helping to break horses and feed cattle.
The 20-year old said that he stopped applying himself after COVID was introduced. "I was more focused on making money than going to school.
A family friend informed him of union apprenticeships. He jumped at the opportunity to be paid for his hands-on work and learn a trade.
He works as a plumber and attends night classes at a Nashville union.
Williams admitted that the pay is not great, but he hopes to eventually earn more than his friends who worked in fast jobs after high school. Williams even believes he is better off than others who went to college. He knows too many people who dropped out of school or took on loans for degrees they didn't use.
Hart said he is doing what he loves in Jackson and contributing to its growing arts community. Hart is still curious about the future. He is able to work in stability, but not much more. He often thinks about Broadway but doesn't have a plan for the next ten years.
He said, "I worry about the future and how it may look for me." "But right now, I'm trying not to worry about the future and what it may look like for me. We'll just take it one step at time.