College isn’t the only path to success

Spurred by a robust job market, a growing number of young Americans are choosing to forgo college for the workforce. Politicians of both parties should welcome this trend and build on it — not least, by shifting resources from traditional college pathways and toward work-based alternatives that provide students with real-world skills.

Last year, 62% of recent high school graduates were enrolled in college, the smallest share in two decades and eight points lower than 2009, when enrollment peaked. Some of that drop can be attributed to pandemic-era school closures, during which many college-age students abandoned their studies and never returned. Rising wages have also made entry-level work more appealing.


Yet there’s evidence that many students are not so much rejecting higher education as seeking a better return on their investment. While overall enrollment in community colleges has plunged nearly 20% since the start of the pandemic, demand has risen for two-year programs that award credentials in technical trades, such as construction, auto repair and IT services. Registered apprenticeships, which combine some classroom instruction with paid on-the-job training, have grown 64% since 2012.

To the extent that people are gaining practical skills, this trend is encouraging. Some 60% of new jobs created in the next decade will be in fields that don’t typically require a college degree. Many fast-growing non-degree professions pay more than the national median. While it’s true that workers with four-year degrees have higher lifetime earnings, nearly 40% of those who enroll in college don’t actually finish — and in the process amass student-loan debts they’re unlikely to repay.

Expanding work-based college alternatives would go a long way toward filling skills shortages, boosting economic opportunity and reducing household debt. Yet government policies aren’t doing enough to advance that goal. Traditional schools receive about $400 billion annually in federal and state funding; apprenticeship programs get about 0.1% of that. President Joe Biden has advocated non-college alternatives but has also pushed to cancel federal student-loan debts — a policy that only encourages students to pursue expensive degrees.

The US needs to adjust its priorities. To start, the administration should work with Congress to shift a greater share of higher-education budgets to supporting work-based programs, particularly apprenticeships. Students should be allowed to use Pell Grants and other forms of aid to pay for short-term training courses. Encouraging the growth of private firms and nonprofits that cover the wages and tuition of apprentices while they receive training would be another positive step.

Employers and school districts should also collaborate to expand vocational training. A model is CareerWise Colorado, which since 2016 has placed more than 1,000 high-school students in multi-year apprenticeships, enabling them to gain academic credits while receiving paid job training. One study found that 37% of participants continued on in full or part-time work, while 27% enrolled in college full-time. The program is based on Switzerland’s apprenticeship system, which enrolls 70% of students starting in the 11th grade and has helped drive the country’s youth unemployment rate below 3%. (CareerWise Colorado receives support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the philanthropic organization of Bloomberg LP founder and majority owner Michael Bloomberg.)

The Biden administration has endorsed legislation to create nearly 1 million new apprenticeships. Reaching that goal could cost as much as $4 billion annually. Giving more young Americans a path to career success would be money well spent.