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In fall 2009, 70.1 percent of that year’s high school graduates were enrolled in post-secondary institutions—the most since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics had begun collecting this data a half-century earlier. This historic high seemed to reflect a trend in which more and more Americans were able to achieve the dream of going to college.
It’s now clear, however, that 2009 was a turning point. Since then, the percentage of new high school graduates enrolled in colleges or universities has been falling. By October 2013, new BLS data show, it had dropped to 65.9 percent.
The drop was even more dramatic in certain demographic segments. Among black high school graduates, the four-year decline was nearly 10 percentage points, to 59.3 percent from 68.7 percent. And while the enrollment rate of Asian graduates remained higher than any other group, it fell to 79.1 percent from 92.2 percent.
Some would argue that these declines might be a good thing. Their reasoning: College enrollments have been inflated by acceptance of some students who are ill-prepared or who will not get a good return on their investment.
Yet as noted here not too long ago, numerous studies have shown that a college education continues to be a key factor in achieving higher earnings. A recent Pew Research Center report, for example, found that college graduates ages 25 to 32 who have full-time jobs earn roughly $17,500 more annually than employed adults in the same age bracket who have only a high school diploma. That pay gap has grown over time.
While it’s true that those with only a bachelor’s degree have seen inflation-adjusted pay decline, that stems from the current shortage of well-paid jobs. By contrast, the data indicate a college education delivers a lifetime of higher earnings potential.
The new BLS report does not attempt to explain why the enrollment rate has declined. Indeed, many have thought the recession drove a number of unemployed people back to school to improve their skills. It’s also possible, of course, that this reversal will be short-lived.
A continued decline in the college enrollment rate of new high school graduates, however, would not be something to ignore.
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