College Enrollment among Recent High School Grads Declined Again in 2021

by Jessica Nelson

June 7, 2022

College enrollment among recent high school graduates fell to 61.8% in 2021, a drop of 0.9 percentage point after a larger decline of 3.5 percentage points in 2020. For the prior 15 years, the overall share of recent high school graduates that are attending college by October of the year they graduated hovered between 66% and 70%. The 2021 college enrollment rate is the lowest since 2001.

While it might make logical sense to think that enrollment rates of recent high school graduates would depend to some degree on the business cycle, in the last couple of decades the decision to attend college immediately after high school doesn’t appear to change much in economic expansions versus recessions. Even the pandemic, which moved so much training online, only caused a dip of a few percentage points in the overall share of recent grads attending college. However, the labor market experiences of recent high school graduates vary considerably with the strength or weakness of the economy, with young people graduating from high school during recessions facing much higher unemployment rates and more difficulty finding work, regardless of college enrollment.

Between January and October 2021, 2.7 million young people in the United States graduated from high school. Another 449,000 young people dropped out of high school between October 2020 and October 2021. Of those who graduated, 1.7 million (62%) enrolled in college by October 2021, with 1.5 million enrolling full time. Most enrolled in four-year colleges (1.2 million). These numbers come from the Current Population Survey produced by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is the same survey that establishes the unemployment rates and labor force participation rates for the nation, states, and local areas. 

Long-Term College Enrollment Increases Plateau

Increases in college enrollment rates have plateaued in the last couple of decades. Back in 1960, fewer than half (45%) of recent high school graduates enrolled in college by the fall following graduation. By 1970, just over half of recent graduates were enrolled. The numbers dipped back below the 50% mark through the early 1970s, but by the early 1980s the share rose above 50% and kept on rising. In 1990, the share of recent high school grads enrolled in college reached 60%. It’s stayed between 60% and 70% ever since. In the 1990s, college enrollment averaged 63%. That rose to a range of 66% to 70% from the 2000s through 2019, before retreating to 63% in 2020 during the pandemic, and 62% in 2021. College enrollment rates for recent high school graduates have been pretty steady for nearly 30 years now.
Among recent high school graduates, women tend to have slightly higher college enrollment than men, and that’s been the case since the 1990s. The gap has been widening, as college enrollment among women has increased in the last decade, while men’s enrollment has been steady. Over the last decade, enrollment in the October after high school graduation averaged 63% among men and 71% among women. The prior decade it averaged 64% of men and 70% of women. In 2021, enrollment among women rebounded, while men’s enrollment declined in both 2020 and 2021.

The share of students choosing to attend four-year colleges and two-year colleges has stayed in a tight range over the past 20 years. Of the 62% to 70% of high school graduates that enroll in college by the fall following graduation, most enroll in four-year colleges. This group tends to make up a little more than 40% of the most recent year’s graduating class. Those enrolling in two-year colleges account for about one-quarter of recent graduates.

Dropping out of high school can have long-lasting economic consequences for an individual and their community. But despite the risks, some high school students drop out of school each year. Dropouts make up the smallest share of exits from United States high schools, but their numbers are still sizeable. More young people dropped out in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 575,000 instead of about 516,000 on average over the prior five years. In 2021, fewer high schoolers dropped out, accounting for 449,000 young people in the U.S.
Outside of the shock of a global pandemic, the strength of the current job market doesn’t appear to affect a recent graduate’s college enrollment choices, or at least not for most youth. With the much-vaunted value of postsecondary education in the job market, including higher average pay, lower unemployment rates, and increased job satisfaction, the decision to enroll in college is about more than last month’s unemployment rate. Enrollment rates move up or down year by year, but most of the time these moves don’t match up well with times of recession and expansion in the overall economy. For instance, enrollment of recent high school graduates moved very little in the depths of the Great Recession in 2009. Just a few percentage points separate enrollment in 2009 and 2010 from the rates in 2017 and 2018, when unemployment rates were near record lows. Students and their parents likely view the decision to enroll in college, or not to enroll, with a longer-term lens.

Business Cycle Matters

While overall rates of college enrollment directly after high school graduation don’t appear to be affected by current strength or weakness in the economy, youth face very different job market outcomes in recession versus expansion. Young workers enjoyed the fruits of a strong economy in the years leading up to the pandemic, with unemployment near record lows. In the pandemic recession, younger workers were heavily affected by job losses and reduced hours, because their employment is more concentrated in lower-wage, entry-level jobs that were the first to go at the onset of the pandemic.

We can see these larger trends at work in the details about the experiences of recent high school graduates. Labor force participation doesn’t vary much in times of expansion and recession. About half of recent high school graduates have been in the labor force throughout the last decade. In 2020 and 2021, recent graduates’ labor force participation dropped to 46%. Men’s labor force participation rebounded in 2021, while women’s rate continued to slip, with the decline concentrated among young women enrolled in college. One-third of college enrolled recent graduates were in the labor force in 2021, compared with 38% prior to the recession.

Those who aren’t enrolled in college are far more likely to be in the labor force. In both 2019 and 2021, the share of not enrolled recent graduates participating in the labor force was about double that of recent graduates who had enrolled in college. Among enrolled graduates, students who are going to college part time are much more likely to participate in the labor force than their peers who are attending college full time. In 2021, almost half of students enrolled in two-year colleges were in the labor force compared with 27% of those enrolled in four-year colleges. Labor force participation among graduates who chose two-year colleges was steady in 2021, while participation decreased among those who chose four-year colleges. This is likely a function of the shift away from campus learning during the pandemic, which was more likely to displace students of four-year universities from their college towns, whereas many students of two-year colleges are already local residents.
Recent high school graduates entering the job market during expansions generally have much better chances of landing a job than those who graduate during recession. Back in 2009, recent high school graduates faced an unemployment rate of 28%. The overall U.S. unemployment rate in 2009 and 2010 was above 9%. In 2018 and 2019, unemployment rates were near record lows across the economy, at about 4%. Recent high school graduates in 2018 and 2019 had a much higher unemployment rate, at 14% and 15%, respectively, but the rate was half the 2009 peak. The pandemic recession caused a slight increase in unemployment among recent graduates, with 17% of recent grads who were in the labor force unemployed in 2020, and the rate retreated to 16% in 2021.

While fewer recent graduates who are enrolled in college participate in the labor force, they seem to have more success in their job searches than young people who aren’t enrolled in college the October after graduation. College enrolled graduates averaged 9% unemployment in 2021, a complete recovery when compared with 11% unemployment in 2019.

Unemployment rates were higher for not enrolled recent graduates prior to the pandemic, at 18% in 2019, and increased to 20% in 2020 and 22% in 2021. The gap between not enrolled young men and women is large. In 2019, young men who weren’t enrolled in college by October after graduation had a 24% unemployment rate, which dropped to 20% in 2021. Among young women who weren’t enrolled, the rate increased from 12% in 2019 to 25% in 2021.

The number of dropouts declined in 2021 to the lowest level in almost a decade. Labor force participation and unemployment rates among 2021 dropouts are about the same as prior to the pandemic. The pandemic recession was very different from the last recession more than a decade ago. Young people who dropped out of high school in the middle of the Great Recession in 2009 had an unemployment rate of 55% – much higher than unemployment among recent graduates, which peaked that year at 28%.

The pandemic upset everyone’s plans these last couple of years. While recent high school graduates in the past two years experienced the least typical conditions possible for starting college, the enrollment rate among recent grads dropped by just a few percentage points overall. Taking a more long-term view, the times of swift increases in college enrollment among recent high school graduates appear to have ended. College enrollment has been pretty steady over the past 20 years. The choice to attend college directly after high school doesn’t appear to be swayed by current economic conditions, which makes sense, as the benefits of a college degree last a life time.

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