Steady College Enrollment Rate among Recent High School Grads

by Jessica Nelson

September 18, 2019

For the last 15 years, the overall share of recent high school graduates that are attending college by October of the year they graduated has been between 66 percent and 70 percent. 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. 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.

We’re now in the longest economic expansion on record in the United States. Young people, however, do not appear to be postponing their college education to join in the job market bonanza. In October 2018, 69 percent of recent high school graduates were enrolled in college. 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. 

Between January and October 2018, 3.2 million young people in the United States graduated from high school. Another 527,000 young people dropped out of high school between October 2017 and October 2018. Of those who graduated, 2.2 million (69%) enrolled in college by October 2018, with 2.0 million enrolling full time. Most enrolled in four-year colleges (1.4 million).

College Enrollment Rate Increases Have Slowed

Increases in college enrollment rates have slowed 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 percent mark through the early 1970s, but by the early 1980s the share rose above 50 percent and kept on rising. In 1990, the share of recent high school grads enrolled in college reached 60 percent. It’s stayed between 60 percent and 70 percent ever since. In the 1990s, college enrollment averaged 63 percent; that rose to 66 percent in the 2000s, and enrollment has averaged 68 percent of recent graduates so far this decade. It appears the era of rapidly rising college enrollment among recent high school graduates has reached an end.
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 more in the last decade than among men. Over the last decade, enrollment in the October after high school graduation averaged 64 percent among men and 72 percent among women. The prior decade it averaged 63 percent of men and 68 percent of women.

The share of students choosing to attend four-year colleges and two-year colleges has stayed in a tight range over the past 15 years. Of the 66 percent to 70 percent 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 percent 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 than half a million young people dropped out of high school in 2018.
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 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, amid the longest economic expansion in U.S. history and with unemployment rates 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. The Great Recession – which occurred from late 2007 through the middle of 2009 – was very hard on young workers, with unemployment rates reaching much higher levels for workers age 24 and younger than for more experienced workers. Those high unemployment rates were also sustained for a long period after the recession. Young workers have enjoyed the fruits of a much stronger economy in recent years.

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 are in the labor force. This was true in 2009 and in 2018. Those who aren’t enrolled in college are more likely to be in the labor force. In 2018, the share of not enrolled recent graduates participating in the labor force was double that of recent graduates who had enrolled in college. Students who are enrolled in college part time are much more likely to participate in the labor force than their peers who are attending college full time.
However, recent high school graduates entering the job market have much better chances of landing a job in times of economic expansion. Back in 2009, recent high school graduates faced an unemployment rate of 28 percent. The overall U.S. unemployment rate in 2009 and 2010 was above 9 percent. In 2018, unemployment rates were near record lows across the economy, at about 4 percent. Recent high school graduates in 2018 had a much higher unemployment rate, at 14 percent, but the rate was half the 2009 peak.

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. Unemployment rates were higher for not enrolled young people in 2009, at a staggering 35 percent, and persisted at a higher level though the economic expansion, coming in at 19 percent in 2018. Youth who enrolled in college after graduating had a 24 percent unemployment rate in 2009, which dropped to 10 percent in 2018.

Young people who dropped out of high school in the middle of the Great Recession in 2009 had an unemployment rate of 55 percent – much higher than unemployment among recent graduates, which peaked that year at 28 percent. However, by 2018, the unemployment rate among high school dropouts matched that of recent high school graduates. With overall unemployment at a very low level for the past two years, this group has much better odds of finding a job. The number of dropouts has increased in the past two years, possibly as students decide the workforce offers more opportunity currently than the advantage of further training.

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 15 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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